England took the first step towards tonight’s Euro Cup final against Italy at Wembley (9pm, Telecinco) on a basketball court. The day the players arrived at the camp at St. George’s Park, England coach Gareth Southgate gathered them together and presented them with a red velvet cap and a book. Each cap was embroidered with a number with silver thread. While the footballers stood listening and fiddling with the tassels on their hats, the coach, who also had his, with the number 1.071, told them about the new tradition. “Very few people have the opportunity to play for England,” he said.
Specifically, 1,262: from Robert Barker, his goalkeeper in the first international game in history, in 1872 against Scotland; even another goalkeeper, Sam Johnstone, who debuted in March. At the ceremony, Grealish touched his cap with 1,251, Maguire with 1,223, Saka with 1,253. “We are part of the history of England, and there is a longer history than just us,” Southgate later explained. “We are not more special than any of those who passed before, or those who will come after.”
From day one, the English team focused instead on the story of a footballing future full of expectations and frustrations in which 55 years have passed since they had stepped on their only grand final, the one they won at the 1966 World Cup. They were also shown a video that reviewed the ups and downs of previous generations and reached out to the boys who would sleep that night in St. George’s Park. Southgate’s plan was not to shirk those hopes, but trying not to get carried away by them, but to control how they rewrote the story.
The rewrite manual comes from the book Southgate gave to the players, Belonging (membership) from former attorney and now performance coach Owen Eastwood, who helps athletes, executives, and even NATO. A part of the ancestors of the New Zealander are Maori, and in them he discovered the concept of whakapapa, which translates as belonging, and which indicates that each person is part of a chain of people that goes from their ancestors to the future. “It’s incredibly powerful,” he says of its application to team sentiment as a collective purpose.
Seen through this filter of ancient Maori wisdom, England’s path to this European Championship seems designed to redress a historical disenchantment. “We do not have a football history as good as we sometimes like to believe,” said Southgate these days in which, after 25 years, he himself has achieved a certain redemption of his failure in the penalty shootout of the 1996 semifinal The Wembley stand, demolished and rebuilt since then, even believes it could have given a new life to an old anthem of that Euro Cup. The famous It’s coming home (Comes home), which the Scots sing as a historical joke, is now sung as a celebration, despite the fact that it is actually a lament: “Thirty years of pain [desde el 66] / they never stopped me from dreaming ”.
The exciting trajectory of the English team in the tournament, where it opens its final, has allowed the reinterpretation of symbols like that, and even the incorporation of others, such as singing the Sweet caroline after victories. After eliminating Germany in the round of 16, with the players already in the locker room, the stands remained singing it. After the semifinal, the players stood on the field to sing it with the people, at a Wembley that is almost only English due to the pandemic’s restrictions on travel from abroad.
The most telling sign that Southgate’s Maori plan is working for now is that it has transcended into football. The Government has extended the opening hours of the pubs for tonight, so that the full final can be seen, and has asked companies to allow their employees to arrive later tomorrow. In addition, he is studying giving a holiday to the whole country if the national team raises the cup.
But between England and the culmination of his rewriting plan, Roberto Mancini’s Italy still stands in the way, less Italy than ever in his joyous life attacking to the quarterfinals, and as much Italy as ever in the semifinal in which he eliminated Spain. And above all, with nine great finals in his repertoire before today (six at the World Cup and three at the European Championship). Italy is urged to a second European title, but not as much as the English to debut in circumstances ready for redemption or extreme melancholy. At heart, it is an England against England.
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