SOMETIMES life has a way of putting disputes into perspective.
The big topic ahead of these Euros has been another skirmish in the culture war — to take the knee or not take the knee?
That was the big question. And then a brilliant, beautiful footballer was struck down in the prime of life, in the middle of a match, and perhaps we understood what is really important.
The shocking collapse of Christian Eriksen in the Denmark v Finland game came out of nowhere and has shocked football fans to their core. As he received CPR on the pitch in Copenhagen, the faces of his stricken, sickened team mates — and the tear-streaked faces of the fans — said it all.
This was far more important — NOT, of course, more important than actually tackling the scourge of racism but more important than the increasingly frenzied row about taking the knee or not taking the knee.
This is life and death. This is a family man who is loved by a partner and children.
And even as the world prayed for the recovery of Christian Eriksen, here was a stunning reminder that none of us knows what waits for us down the line.
What happened may give us perspective and the things we have argued about — if those who kneel to support the Black Lives Matter movement are inadvertently backing Marxists, or if those who boo them are racist bigots — will wither and fade to nothing. Perhaps.
But I strongly suspect that after Christian Eriksen’s collapse, the debates will not change, and, after a respectful period of silence on both sides, will continue to rage.
And it will not be long before we ask once more: Is politics ruining sport?
England’s footballers will “take the knee” before their match against Croatia today. Scotland will do the same tomorrow.
But these are not political acts. They change nothing. They mean nothing. They are what my esteemed colleague Ally Ross calls “woke self-delusion”.
If they have any impact at all, then I suspect it will be to cause divisions between decent people. Because so many of us are sick of having this virtue-signalling baloney shoved down our throats.
This world CAN be changed for the better.
Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, who has never forgotten the free school meals he had as a child, changed the world when he raised £20million for child poverty during lockdown, in alliance with the charity FareShare.
But it took more than pulling on a T-shirt or striking what many see as a Black Lives Matter pose for a few seconds.
When England kick off their Euros campaign against Croatia, it should be the start of a great adventure — for a dazzling generation of English footballers, and for the nation.
These Euros should be up there with the very best of years — 1966, 1990, 1996 and 2018 in Russia, when England were so near and still so far from their first final in a lifetime.
We have an England team stuffed with youth, creativity and flair — Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Mason Mount and Phil Foden with a newly blond crop that makes him look a little like Paul Gascoigne and a lot like Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics.
We also have a manager who understands what a tournament like this means to the nation.
So why do I feel this sense of anxious dread?
Because I know that just before 2pm today, England’s footballers will strike a pose that provokes booing among a significant number of England supporters.
And if you love England, and if you love football, then that will surely break your heart.
I know it breaks mine.
The football establishment will smear all those who boo as racist bigots — which I seem to remember was the quick, easy unanswerable slur that was thrown at the 17.4million who voted to leave the European Union.
It is difficult to respond to charges of racism.
The very accusation shuts down rational debate.
But — and I am guessing here — it is my honest belief that if England’s footballers choose to, say, link arms instead of adopting a BLM pose, every England football fan would cheer them to the rafters of Wembley.
This should be a day of national celebration. And sport’s grotesque woke pantomime is destroying it.
It is not the job of England’s footballers — lovely lads, I am sure, but with more than one mindless lockdown breaker in their ranks — to “educate” the fans who watch them.
Where does it come from, this modern notion that every sportsman has a moral obligation to be a paragon of political correctness?
Once sport wasn’t about changing the world — sport was allowing us to forget about it for a couple of hours. I don’t recall Nobby Stiles taking a stance on the Vietnam War in 1966. When the tears flowed at Italia 1990 I don’t remember Gazza having an opinion on whether the pound should join the Exchange Rate Mechanism.
Nobby, Gazza — they played football, glorious football that made you glad to be alive and glad to be an England supporter. And it was enough.
When did it stop being enough?
Even if it ends in despair and a penalty shoot-out against the Germans, every great football tournament reminds us why we love the game.
And in every football fan’s life there is that first special tournament — because it was probably the moment they fell deeply, unconditionally and permanently in love with our national game.
Every fan in the land remembers their first World Cup. For England manager Gareth Southgate, it was the 1982 World Cup in Spain, when he was 11 years old.
“I was obsessed,” Southgate wrote this week on The Players’ Tribune website. “I had the wall chart, ready to fill in with every result, every goal scorer, every detail.” Southgate was a Manchester United supporter who played in midfield and worshipped Bryan Robson.
“I rushed home from school for England’s opener against France to see Bryan Robson score after 27 seconds! Well, it’s safe to say I was hooked.”
That’s the thing about your first World Cup — it makes you believe dreams can sometimes come true.
The first World Cup I remember was 1966. And I remember it more vividly than what happened to me last week. I remember the rain and sunshine on that Swinging Sixties summer’s day when England wore red shirts.
I remember Bobby Moore’s smile, Jack Charlton sinking to his knees, someone running on the pitch as Geoff Hurst closed in on his hat-trick.
And I remember Nobby Stiles dancing without his dentures or a care in the world, Bobby Charlton in tears, the Queen looking so young and proud as she gave the trophy to the England captain who looked like a film star.
I will remember it all on the day I die.
England winning the World Cup in 1966 glazed my childhood with magic. Those two weeks in a rainy English summer when I was a kid have shaped my life — they made me believe that the best stories have a happy ending, that the good guys win and that there is always a reason for hope.
Especially if you are an England fan.
That formative first tournament doesn’t have to be a World Cup.
I have no doubt that there are millions of England fans in this country, now entering early middle age, who recall watching Euro 96 as children.
Gazza’s genius against Scotland, Shearer stuffing the Dutch and that most wistful of football anthems, Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home), so full of love and longing and dreams that turn to dust. Gareth Southgate — himself a major player in our nation’s never-ending Three Lions story — totally gets it.
“There’s something I tell our players before every England game,” Southgate writes. “I tell them that when you go out there, in this shirt, you have the opportunity to produce moments that people will remember for ever. You are part of an experience that lasts in the collective consciousness of our country.”
As the world emerges from the nightmare of coronavirus, these Euros — already delayed by a year — should be even more special.
After all the tragedy, stress and trauma of the last year, comes a moment when the nation can come together again.
But England is not united today.
A gap — an abyss — has opened up between the fans and the team.
And whatever you believe, and whatever your stance on “taking the knee”, if you love England and you love football, that will be a cause of profound sorrow.
The football establishment has painted everyone — everyone! — who boos as a racist bigot merely PRETENDING their beef is only with the politics of BLM, the Cenotaph-desecrating protest movement that popularised the gesture in this country.
But there is another point of view emerging.
“The gesture [taking the knee] is not achieving what those doing it want or intended it to do,” writes John Barnes, of Liverpool, of England. “If a player wants to take the knee, then let them do it.
What we must accept is that it will not make an iota of difference to the wider cause one way or another.”
Barnes knows more about racism in English football than anyone alive. Four years after he scored the greatest England goal of all time — a mazy run against Brazil in the Maracana in 1984 — John was the subject of one of the most famous photographs ever taken at an English football stadium.
In a Merseyside derby at Goodison Park, Barnes, in the all-red of Liverpool, backheels a banana skin that has been thrown at him from the terraces.
The look on Barnes’ face is difficult to read — determination, disgust, pride, anger — it’s all there.
Barnes is a footballer and a man that knows all there is to know about confronting the sickening horrors of racism.
What he endured in his career is unimaginable to the rest of us.
When John Barnes tells us that the woke pantomime of taking the knee is not working, we should all listen.
Let’s not waste this tournament. The players have become quite frankly too entrenched to stop their meaningless virtue signalling but I pray all those unfairly smeared fans are intelligent enough to understand they have made their point.
For England — the team, the nation and that kid with the wall chart ready for his first big tournament — now is the hour for unity and celebration.
It’s time for the boos to stop. And the roars to start.
And for all of us — the kneelers, the booers, and the vast majority who are neither — keep Christian Eriksen in our hearts, and our prayers.
Sport matters. Football matters. It is, as someone once said, the most important of the unimportant things.
But yesterday, as an elite Danish athlete fought for his life on that field of dreams, we all had a lesson to learn.
Football is not life and death.
It’s less important than that.
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