Content Warnings: Mentions of xenophobia and racism.
“Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on, football’s coming home again.”
Chills. There’s something about the rolling cadence and easy harmonies of Atomic Kitten’s official Euro 2020 anthem, a fan-inspired version of their 2001 hit ‘Whole Again’, that encapsulates the calm, concordant and comforting leadership style of England manager Gareth Southgate throughout a tournament fraught with politics. From gestural activism to nationalistic bigotry and xenophobia, in the face of it all, Southgate has shown integrity, humanity and strength of character, and the trophy his team are fighting so graciously for is indelibly carved with the mark of respect.
Of course, you can watch the football without asking why it matters for players to take the knee; you can grimace and squirm at a missed shot and not care about the obnoxious nationalism of booing the opposition’s national anthem. Plenty of managers wouldn’t stop to consider these issues, perhaps viewing them as mere distractions from the real goal: winning. But Southgate recognises that football is more than just a game. “Dear England,” wrote Southgate in his open letter to England fans, “I have never believed that we should just stick to football. I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold. At home, I’m below the kids and the dogs in the pecking order but publicly I am the England men’s football team manager. I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players. It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.”
Simply put, Southgate understands. He understands the struggles of his black players who are more likely to be vilified by the press than their white counterparts; he understands that they care about issues of class and race, with MBEs awarded to Marcus Rashford for his free school meals campaign work and Raheem Sterling for services to racial equality in football, and he wants to support them. This profound empathic understanding and social awareness – this emotional intelligence – is what has allowed Southgate to show his players that he cares about them off the pitch as well as on it, building a tangible sense of trust between players and manager, which translates into patient, secure and solid match play. Southgate’s empathy and outward-looking perspective, alongside his 57 England caps as a player and his managerial experience, combine to produce a wonderful example of a socially perceptive leader that all business leaders and politicians should look to as a role model.
Southgate’s compassionate nature has not gone unnoticed by fans either. There is surely no football discussion on Twitter more wholesome than the #GarethSouthgateWould thread that started trending during the 2018 World Cup, in which doting England fans revelled in heart-eyed affection for Southgate, producing a series of hypothetical quips that demonstrate his gentle, benevolent selflessness. For example, Gareth Southgate would pay for your lunch because you forgot your Bod card. He’d step in during a tute when he sensed you were about to out yourself for not having done the reading. And he’d probably remove the clothes you accidentally left in the washing machine, tumble dry them before they started to smell and leave them in neatly folded piles on your bed. Fundamentally, he’s just a really nice person.
But despite their clear love and admiration for Southgate, England fans have an extremely long route ahead of them before being able to claim to value respect in football and in society. Just yesterday England was charged by UEFA with disrupting the Danish national anthem and shining a laser pen at Kasper Schmeichel during Harry Kane’s penalty at the semi-final, and the post-match debauchery has tended to involve vandalism: climbing up lampposts, onto buses and setting off fireworks in crowded areas. Once again, if we look to Southgate for inspiration, all we see is kindness and respect. When a Colombian player missed a penalty in the 2018 World Cup, allowing England to progress to the quarter-finals, Southgate was pictured consoling him before joining his team to celebrate their win.
Southgate’s magnanimous leadership style has steered England in all the right directions. The England men’s football team are playing in their first major tournament final since 1966, with a squad that represents the different strata of English society and a manager that cares about improving life for his nation. It’s an achievement that reminds us that, in leadership, the ability to empathise, see the bigger picture, and the desire want to strive towards a more equal world doesn’t just leave people feeling better – it delivers results. Win or lose on Sunday, England fans should be able to take immense pride in the players’ individual behaviour and team performances, and learn from the inspirational way that Gareth Southgate has nurtured a sense of unity across a nation at such a divided time.