I’ve found it difficult to follow England in recent years – but Southgate and Rashford have given me hope

The sights in Charleroi during Euro 2000 left a bitter taste in my mouth that has been difficult to forget, but fans have now been shown a better example to follow

James Moore
Saturday 12 June 2021 14:05
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Euro 2020: Daily briefing

Gareth Southgate, Marcus Rashford and the boys have done something I thought would be almost impossible. They’ve made an England fan of me again.

Let me explain. I used to be a passionate member of the tribe. I regularly went to games, watched them with friends when I couldn’t, screamed my lungs hoarse, cried into my beer whenever a penalty shoot out loomed signifying that the end was nigh.

That started to change during the Euro 2000 tournament.

The England Germany match in the group stages ended in victory. The Germans, however, won the battle of the terrace chants. While England’s fans indulged in juvenile impressions of bombers (sigh), chanted two world wars and one World Cup (two more sighs) even chucked in a few verses of no surrender to the IRA (sigh, again), the jocular Germans showed them up by singing “you’re s*** and you know you are”. No that isn’t terribly witty, but the fact that they did it in perfect English rather made a point.

It should be said that England mostly were, at least until Alan Shearer did his thing.

But it was on the journey back when things got really unpleasant. The centre of Charleroi was the scene of some shocking behaviour. And, yes, this was after a victory.

My most vivid memory of that night was the sight of a Belgian couple – they must have been someone’s grandparents – staring in horror at the sight of their smashed up cake shop. Then they looked at us. It was guilt by association. But I still felt the shame. It was hard to bear.

It almost put me off going to the crucial game against Romania, which would decide the team’s fate, but I had a ticket and, hey, in for a penny.

Charleroi’s remaining cake shops survived that one, but the game was hard to concentrate on from where we were sitting because behind us was a six-foot distillation of everything ugly about this country, a lumpen piece of litter that spent the whole match spitting out foul glops of unabashedly racist bile, mostly in the direction of Emile Heskey.

That didn’t finalise the divorce. It wasn't the last match I attended or watched on a large screen. It wasn’t the last time I cheered myself hoarse. But it was one of those moments you look back on and realise that was where it started. The slow end of the affair.

And I know. Idiots are a minority, albeit a vocal one. They really are. And if you let people like Mr Big Mouth Racist push you out, then they’ll push others out and that’s how they win. It’s just that there’s only so many times you can be embarrassed by the people you’re sitting alongside before you give up and find an alternative activity that you can enjoy without regret.

Then Southgate came along; a man who displays a certain quiet decency that I thought had gone of the way of the Microsoft Zune.

In his much-shared letter for The Players’ Tribune he described a form of patriotism stripped of the baleful nationalism that we’ve seen far too much of lately, one that is inclusive, recognising, embracing, a diversity of views and backgrounds. It’s the antithesis of the tired old culture wars.

“Our players are role models,” he wrote. “And, beyond the confines of the pitch, we must recognise the impact they can have on society.”

“I have never believed that we should just stick to football,” he went on to opine, in recognition of the fact that some of his selections have taken that to heart, and that it will likely be demonstrated before the kick off.

One of those is obviously Marcus Rashford. His superlative talent has blessed him with riches and fame, taken him to a place far removed from the council house he came from (as did I).

Rashford nonetheless stood up and stared down Britain’s miserable politicians on behalf of people from the sort of economically-embattled community from whence he came to secure for them free school meals and ensure that “holiday” didn’t go hand in hand with “hungry”.

A footballer shouldn’t be in the position of having to do that, and Rashford took some ugly brickbats from privileged commentators. But he did it anyway. And he didn’t shut up. Nor is he the only leading player who defies the clichéd image of footballers as overpaid and entitled.

They aren’t all angels, mind, but Rashford, Southgate and some of the others are in real danger of giving their country a good name. Damn it, you want to get behind these people. They threaten to blow away some of the cynicism that’s been weighing on me.

Maybe they’ll even go and win it. Or at least emerge victorious from a penalty shoot out or two. To be honest, I’d take that.

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