This Is England

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By the end of the day, the scrawl of abuse had been buried beneath an avalanche of sticky notes and hand-drawn flags, homemade banners and paper hearts. Affection and appreciation had so convincingly drowned out malice and hate that they had colonized the wall. Now, only the top half of the mural was still visible: the face of Marcus Rashford, rising above it all.

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There is a line in “30 Rock,” the Tina Fey sitcom, delivered when the two central characters are on a visit to Stone Mountain, Ga., searching for “someone who represents the ‘Real America.’” “For the 80th time,” Fey’s character responds, “no part of America is more American than any other part.”

That is the thing with countries: They are generally so vast and so contradictory and so complex that they defy easy encapsulation, essentially arbitrary edifices eroded and expanded by human hands, established in some distant past and bound together by little more than the delicate, malleable forces of convention and tradition. They are because, for as long as anyone cares to remember, they have always been.

They are big cities and small towns, suburban sprawl and empty expanse, gleaming towers and forgotten corners. They exist in tax codes and legal documents and in the distinct imaginations and experiences of the hundreds of thousands, the hundreds of millions, who live within them: some who have known nothing else, some who have only just arrived.

England is no different. England is the country that is represented and reflected by its national soccer team: diverse and modern, progressive and compassionate. It is also the country that, with the apparent support of some of its leading politicians, booed those very same players when they had the nerve to express their diversity and progressivism.

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Credit…Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

It is the country that racially abused three Black players when they missed penalties on the final day of the Euros, but it is also the country that showered all three with love and support in response. It is the country that fashioned the person who daubed abuse — of a nonracist nature, according to the police — on the mural of Rashford in south Manchester, near where he grew up. But it is also the country that, within a few hours, buried that abuse beneath all of those flags and hearts.

And, no matter how tempting it is to think otherwise, neither of those countries can lay exclusive claim to being the country. England is both of those places, and it is neither, it is far off and it is somewhere in between, just like everywhere else. It all hinges on the England that you see, that you feel. No part of it is any more real than any other part.

I think about the contrast often. Five years ago, during the first week of Euro 2016, I arrived in Toulouse, France, to cover a game between Spain and the Czech Republic. The train got in with a few hours to spare. It was spitting with rain, and the stadium was some distance away, around a bend in the Garonne river. But I had never been to Toulouse before, so I decided to walk.

It took an hour, maybe a little more. The city was full of Spanish fans; it is not far from the border. In almost every little square, one corner had been draped in red and yellow, a bar or a café or a restaurant adopted by a group of fans. Most of them were drinking. Some of them were singing. But, dispersed through the city, it did not feel overpowering. Normal people went about their normal lives. The mood was cordial, calm and a little celebratory.

A few days later, I went to St. Etienne, an industrial town on the other side of France. England was playing Slovakia in its final group stage game. Outside the train station, in the first public space any new arrival to the city would see, there were thousands of England fans. They had stepped off the train, they had found a couple of Irish pubs, and they had set up camp.

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Credit…Jane Stockdale for The New York Times

The mood was not particularly aggressive. The atmosphere was not troublingly hostile. But, at the same time, it was abundantly clear that this territory had been claimed. The border was demarcated by England flags. It was a corner of a foreign field that would — if not forever, then certainly for the afternoon — be England.

There are certain things that England fans do that are, in my experience, unique. One of them is how they sing their national anthem. “God Save The Queen” is, by global standards, a pretty tame sort of a song. There are no calls to establish battalions, or mentions of impure blood. As the journalist Barney Ronay once suggested, in some lights it is little more than a dirge, pleading with “an entity that doesn’t exist to preserve one that shouldn’t.”

And yet “God Save The Queen” is the only anthem, in a soccer context, that is sung at people. Most fans stand, solemnly, during their anthem. In some countries, it is tradition to put a hand on the heart, or at least where people think it is. Only England fans sing their anthem with their arms outstretched, as if issuing a challenge.

The other thing they do is what they did that afternoon in St. Etienne. It is only sometimes that England fans hurl patio furniture or start running battles with the police. But they reliably annex space, not blending into it in small, discreet groups, but claiming a whole swath of a foreign city as their own for a few hours.

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Credit…Lee Smith/Action Images, via Reuters

It is a tradition that has survived a change in generations, a change in approach. The mood around most England games, on foreign soil, is now not one of full-fledged hooliganism. It is, if anything, more akin to a particularly raucous bachelor party. There is a lot of drinking. There are drugs: One favored chant, dating to at least Euro 2016, is an ode to cocaine. There is, more often than is probably required at a sporting event, nudity.

It would take a brighter mind than mine to parse why that might be. Perhaps it is no mystery: maybe that is just how people, generally, cut loose. Perhaps it is how young English men experience foreign countries: It is what you do when you see the Mediterranean sun. The problem there, of course, is that these problems do not occur with fans of Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland, even though they go on the same sorts of holidays to the same sorts of places.

So, perhaps, it is something to do with England: not the country, but the soccer team. There are some who are old enough to have been in Marseille in 1998 and Charleroi in 2000, the final throes of the old hooliganism, and who might still yearn for a little topless wander down a memory lane that has a water cannon parked at one end.

But there are many more who will have seen the videos and watched the footage and inferred that this is what it is to be an England fan, that this is how you earn your stripes and support your country, and have become, in effect, cosplay hooligans. England is a chance to claim space and go a little wild; that is their role, their patriotic duty. That is what it is to be England.

The question, in hindsight, is a simple one: What, exactly, did the police think was going to happen? Fans had been arriving at the Wembley Park underground station all day, gathering in ever greater numbers in the shadow of the stadium. Some of them — 60,000 or so — had tickets. Twice that number, three times possibly, did not.

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Credit…Peter Cziborra/Action Images Via Reuters

By the time the teams for the Euro 2020 final were announced on Sunday night, it had been estimated that some 250,000 people were in the vicinity of Wembley. All that separated them from the stadium was one set of barriers, a subtle police presence, a few hundred volunteers, and stewards who are paid little more than minimum wage. What happened next was, in one sense, shocking. In another, it really wasn’t.

Hundreds, and possibly thousands, of ticketless fans tried to storm the gates. Others bribed stewards to let them through, or presented screenshots of other people’s Covid tests, or barreled through turnstiles behind those who had paid to be there. The atmosphere, outside, turned threatening and hostile.

Once inside, they blocked gangways or packed aisles or simply stood in the nonspaces between seats. Genuine ticket-holders were displaced. Fights broke out. There have been accounts, over the last few days, of families who had paid hundreds of dollars to attend the biggest game England has seen for 55 years leaving early out of fear.

It is soccer’s instinct, on these occasions, to try to distance itself from the people who have dragged its name into disrepute. They are not, the statements always go, true fans. That is, most likely, not true — you can be a cat burglar and an art lover; no one part of you is more real than the other — but even if it were, it is an irrelevance.

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Credit…Jane Stockdale for The New York Times

England, the country, is not easily defined. It is neither one place nor the other. It is both one place and the other. But England, the team, or at least the atmosphere surrounding it, is uniform. The numbers, this time, were greater, because of both the scale and the location of the game, but this was, to an extent, simply London experiencing what many other places have endured, the annexation of space and the bachelor-party lawlessness. It was England looking into a mirror and seeing itself.

It so easily could have been avoided. More police might not have solved the problem, but restricting access to the area around the stadium to those with tickets would have helped. So, too, would have placing more obstacles, more security checks, between the entrance and the crowd. The Metropolitan Police, without doubt, handled a difficult situation — a nation teetering on the brink of ecstasy after 15 months of lockdown and misery — badly.

That should not allow soccer to absolve itself from blame. A crowd of that size defies easy encapsulation. There were many, in the stadium and out on Wembley Way, who did nothing wrong, who simply wanted to go and enjoy the atmosphere, or the game, or both. But there were plenty — perhaps a minority, perhaps not — who invoked that stag-party spirit of England, the team, who assumed that the occasion meant anything goes.

That is an atmosphere that has been allowed to fester, a tradition that has been given tacit permission to take hold. Increasing policing is not the answer to that problem; or, at least, it is not a responsible answer to it. This one, ultimately, rests on the fans: on what they want England, the team, to be. As Sunday proved, at the moment, one part is much more real than the other, and it is not the part that you want.


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Credit…Pool photo by Justin Tallis

Massimi Ferrero had even put a price on it. On the morning of Denmark’s Euro 2020 semifinal with England, Mikkel Damsgaard was worth $35 million. That, to Ferrero — president of the Italian team, Sampdoria, where the young Danish wing plays his club soccer — was a “fair price.” It would increase, though, if Damsgaard scored again in the tournament.

That evening, Damsgaard delivered, fizzing a free kick over England’s wall and past the outstretched arms of Jordan Pickford to give Denmark the lead in the teams’ semifinal at Wembley. The fact that England drew level seven minutes later, the fact that Denmark lost the game: That was all irrelevant to Ferrero. Damsgaard’s price had gone up, to $47 million. That one goal, in his mind, was worth $12 million.

To Ferrero, the 20-year-old Damsgaard’s shining performances in the European Championship were a godsend. As with so many mid-tier clubs in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, Sampdoria’s finances are parlous. And yet suddenly, unexpectedly, the club found itself in possession of, arguably, the tournament’s breakout star.

Traditionally, that means only one thing: a soaring price tag, a frenzied auction, a bumper contract for the player and a generous windfall for his former employer. It is what might be called the James Rodríguez phenomenon, the precise mechanism that swept him to Real Madrid in the aftermath of the 2014 World Cup.

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Credit…Pierre-Philippe Marcou/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It will be intriguing to see quite how much soccer has changed — has learned — in the intervening seven years. There is no question that Damsgaard is a fine player, of course, and young enough to further improve. The idea that someone might pay almost $50 million for him is not entirely ridiculous. (Liverpool, for example, paid a similar amount for Diogo Jota last year).

But the vast majority of teams have sufficiently sophisticated processes now to know that buying a player after a good tournament is poor economics. Most would regard Ferrero’s valuation as inflated and set about trying to find better value elsewhere in the market, while keeping an eye on Damsgaard to see if his price drops.

It is possible that the idea of a tournament player can be consigned to history, that Rodríguez was one of the last to make that journey, that Ferrero is operating in a different reality from the rest of Europe.

Or it is possible that soccer is not quite as smart and sophisticated as it thinks it is, and that there are enough teams out there desperate for a little bit of glamour — the sort provided, say, by signing a player who has just dazzled in a major tournament — to fall into Ferrero’s trap. Damsgaard may yet be a test case for how sensible soccer has become.

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Credit…Joan Mateu/Associated Press

There was a moment, late last month, when you just started to wonder. Lionel Messi had not signed a new contract at Barcelona, and though the noises emanating from the club were confident, it was not exactly easy to understand why.

La Liga’s financial rules dictated that Barcelona had to shave some $240 million from its wage bill to pass muster, and that even if the club did, it could use only a quarter of the money it raised from sales to invest in new players. As June 30 came and went, with Messi on course to winning the Copa América with Argentina, it seemed feasible that, a year after he came so close to leaving, this time he might have to do it.

And then, of course, came word of the new contract, which will tie Messi to the club until he is 39, should he choose to go on that long. The sacrifices Messi has made are, if looked at exclusively from the point of view of soccer’s free market, remarkable: He has taken a pay cut, and agreed to backload at least a portion of his salary, just to help Barcelona deal with the consequences of the chronic mismanagement his own performances have done so much to counteract.

All, then, should be well at Camp Nou. Except that it is not. Not by some distance. The club cannot find takers for any of the high-earning players it desperately wants to offload — Samuel Umtiti, Philippe Coutinho, Miralem Pjanic, Ousmane Dembélé — and so appears to have resorted to trading one it would like to keep, Antoine Griezmann, back to Atlético Madrid, in return for Saúl Ñiguez and, reportedly, $15 million or so.

This is the future Barcelona has made for itself: painstakingly picking its way through the transfer market to raise enough money, and make enough savings, to put off all of the difficult decisions it will have to make at some point. It could not, ultimately, contemplate a future in which Messi wore another jersey.

That is, of course, largely a business decision — Messi earns the club more money than he costs, by some estimates — but it is also a romantic one. It seems like the right way for Messi’s career to end: at the only club he has ever known. The pity is that, even in his salad days, it is hard to see how Barcelona can now cobble together a team worthy of his talents.

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Credit…Alberto Pezzali/Associated Press

The final few days of Euro 2020 — and, of course, this month’s edition of the Copa América — inspired a deluge of correspondence. First is Lou Ambrogio, who would like it acknowledged that “England received an extra edge by playing all their games at home.”

Failing to mention that last week, he wrote, “demonstrates your bias toward England and the Premier League.” The logic is impeccable, of course: England did have an edge because it played six of its seven games at Wembley.

It wasn’t mentioned, though, because a tournament always has a host: It’s not unusual for one team to do better because they’re on home soil. South Korea in 2002, for example, or Russia in 2018. But, in ordinary circumstances, all of the other teams also base themselves in that country, minimizing travel time.

In this format, some teams got to stay home, while others had to travel. You have to have a tournament somewhere; someone will always have a partisan crowd at their back. What you don’t have to do, and UEFA has already hinted it will not do again, is distort the competition further by placing different demands on different teams.

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Credit…Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Bruce Stanforth, meanwhile, asks: “What’s Copa América? Certainly wouldn’t know from your coverage.” Though he does so on the back of a whole column about the Copa América, which rather detracts from the criticism.

Still, point taken: I would have loved to have covered it more. There is, however, only one of me, and Euro 2020 was, to my mind, the bigger (also: nearer) event. This also would be helped if the Copa América was not essentially a weekly event. I’d be happy to go to Ecuador in 2024, though, if you want to have a word with whoever sets our budget.

There were plenty of quibbles about my suggested team of the tournament, too. Daniel Shultz would have gone for Leonardo Bonucci ahead of Giorgio Chiellini — or perhaps even John Stones — and there were several advocates for Jorginho and Jordan Pickford, all of whom make a cogent and compelling case.

And, finally, Alexander Klein suggests that this summer was England’s equivalent of “Call Me By Your Name.” “Came of age, fell in love, felt alive, all ending in Italian heartbreak, and the realization it’s better to have loved and lost and cried into a fireplace than never experienced any of it,” he wrote. Now, I haven’t read or seen “Call Me By Your Name,” so I would say that fits, so long as the grand denouement includes several hundred thousand people gathering in the middle of a city and violating all health and safety guidance on the safe disposal of fireworks.



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