A mere three days before England’s opening match at Euro 2020, Gareth Southgate was still figuring out his first line-up. These were no straight personnel decisions, either. They were bigger. As late as Thursday, it was still possible that Southgate could go from a three-man central defence of Kyle Walker, John Stones and Luke Shaw, to the slight possibility of a two featuring Harry Maguire.
Perceptions of this thinking process will ultimately be dictated by the result against Croatia, but also residual feelings towards Southgate. For some in the game, it is a perfect indication of his “indecision”, his supposed “inability to judge a player”. For others in football who admire Southgate, it is the impressive flexibility that has elevated so many other elements of his management.
One thing can be said with certainty. There doesn’t currently feel a first XI that just naturally fits England’s abundant talent. Every possible line-up involves a significant compromise somewhere in the team. If you play that extra attacker that everyone demands, you expose the backline in a way that is almost certain to get you eliminated.
Southgate’s real challenge in trying to win this tournament is trying to figure out exactly what kind of team this England is.
That is fitting given his imposed role as a spokesperson for English football culture, because part of the challenge for the squad is facing exactly what kind of country this England is. The two are interlinked in an inevitable but uncomfortable way. The country should also be one that involves compromises at this time, but none are forthcoming.
Into that step the team - or, more accurately, kneel the team. The situation is incredible when you stand back from it, but also perhaps entirely predictable.
After the 15 months of misery that England has had amid Covid-19, Southgate’s squad were supposed to offer a grand national reunion, as well as truly communal moments. The games were supposed to be event for people to celebrate together now that they can finally be together. Southgate himself has spoken of this so much. There have been so many references to the joy of Euro 96, and the 2018 World Cup.
There is instead the possibility that Euro 2020 could be something else entirely, with the fact it is called that despite taking place in 2021 almost signifying a wider disconnect.
At the very forefront of all of these communal events will be a moment that illustrates the huge split in the country.
The England players will be booed as they take the knee. That’s in their own stadium, in a tournament they are hosting and have a very good chance of winning.
It isn’t the only way the last year has turned the situation around the team on its head.
If Euro 2020 was the perfect opportunity to bring the population together, the uncomfortable reality is that the boos are the perfect articulation of what has set the country apart. They are the perfect encapsulation of the culture war that England has been going through from the fissures that led to Brexit.
It is also where Southgate made one slight misstep in his many supremely judged comments. He is wrong to say taking the knee isn’t political. It is inherently political, but that is no bad thing. It is to be embraced. Part of the problem with all of this is the ludicrous idea that sport is separate to politics. That was always impossible. The very parameters that involve picking teams - and especially international teams - are fundamentally political. How can a situation where players from multiple national backgrounds are so inspirationally allowed to play for England be anything but political? That’s a simple example, but among the most illustrative. And, again, a very good thing.
It is also why it was entirely predictable that football was going to throw up such a problem, especially at a truly national moment like an international tournament it hosts. It is after all the country’s national sport. That is really the core issue for those who boo. They are being confronted with a problem they don’t want to know about in what they see as their own space: the game, the stadium. That’s what all this is: people working through and trying to register a criticism they weren’t willing to face. That’s what the booing really represents. It is a reflection of disruption, to people’s way of thinking as much as anything else.
It is also why all of the counter-arguments about marxism or BLM should be dismissed as what they are: utter rubbish. Ian Wright was correct in saying they are disingenuous, and little more than a cover for something else. But it is something deeper.
One small concession should be made there. It is undeniably true that taking the knee was linked to ‘BLM’ at the start. The letters were emblazoned everywhere when Project Restart began. We shouldn’t seek to rewrite recent history.
But, equally, this truth shouldn’t erode the infinitely more relevant reality that it was never linked to the political movement and that the gesture means something very different for the players. Taking the knee long precedes BLM and will persevere long after it. Its meaning has thereby always been separate. The sentiment is pure.
One argument from those who boo is that no one has made this clear, that a statement is needed.
Well, by now, Southgate has explained it, the players have explained it, the pundits have explained it and the Football Association have explained it. Who else can possibly say anything? What else can possibly be said? They have all made their meaning clear: that this is solely a gesture towards racial equality, to make people recognise existing inequalities.
No other interpretation is possible. Anyone still insisting it is about the BLM political movement or Marxism is just ignorantly imposing their own meaning, and in truth dealing with their own issues. That is what much of this is about.
It is also why it is wrong to point at how other anti-racist initiatives - like Kick It Out banners or linking arms - were not booed. They were fairly generalist if still important messages seeking to eliminate racism. They were calls to action. Taking the knee is a reproach.
It is a reproach of a society and its structures that sees players racially abused on social media at the surface, and that more deeply breeds the kind of economic inequalities that allow social problems to breed. These are the kids Marcus Rashford is trying to help.
This is an implicit point England’s players are making. It is why this has become a binary issue, with no other interpretation possible. The meaning is clear. If you boo that, you are booing the idea of racial equality. That really is something to be confronted, and for the authorities to investigate.
It is why the booing should really offer the opportunity to address some of the more problematic elements of England’s support. It is also one other way the team reflect wider society.
Just as Boris Johnson refused to criticise those who booed because they are a core part of his electorate, the Football Association has refused to previously punish them for songs like ‘No Surrender’ because they are a core part of the English support.
That’s another uncomfortable reality. That perception of right-wing belligerence also undoubtedly played into the 2018 debate about whether ‘Three Lions’ is ironic, a discussion that is destined to resurface. It wasn’t really about the song. It was the song on top of so many other issues, and a picture of certain supporters who radiate obnoxious nationalist exceptionalism. Is it really any wonder that a rump of fans who sing ‘No Surrender’ and ‘Ten German Bombers’ and caused such chaos on two of their last trips in Porto and Seville have such an issue with such a progressive gesture? The retrospectibe bolting on of convenient counter-arguments just isn’t credible.
This is England, or at least one side of England. It is another way this is a binary issue.
The beautiful thing about this team is that they represent another side of England, a more diverse and inclusive England that takes in so many other nationalities. This is England, too. This is this team.
It is a diverse group of hugely likeable and grounded socially-conscious lads, who are a celebration of the multicultural country the nation is at its best. At least 15 of the players could have represented other teams, meaning nine other nationalities are represented by a squad who fittingly celebrate some of England’s many immigrant communities. They are Ireland, Jamaica, St Kitts, Barbados, Nigeria, Ghana and New Zealand.
They are why this is another side of England and then some.
An extra challenge the players face, nevertheless, is that taking the knee will become intertwined with how they perform. It is impossible for it not to be.
This of course isn’t to reproach them for taking the knee. It is a gesture to be supported. But it does feed into the growing feeling this tournament could have binary outcomes.
In one possible future, England go far - maybe even become European champions - and the booing is completely drowned out by joyous celebration, a true unifying event. It's another way Southgate’s side can be the saviours of the nation.
In the other possible future, England underperform, and the anger over taking the knee feeds into an ugly-tempered fury about a wasted opportunity for a wondrous group of players.
It shouldn’t be so simple of course. England could well go out in the last 16, but after winning all their group games in fantastic fashion, only to have the misfortune of meeting one of France, Germany or Portugal to go out on penalties despite a rousing display. That should be better than a semi-final based on streaky unconvincing wins. It is why going out in the last 16 to Argentina in 1998 was infinitely better than the miserly quarter-final exit to Portugal in 2006.
It’s just that tournament football is rarely seen that way.
This group of players can still forge their own way. Such strides may even be dependent on their stance - so to speak - on taking the knee.
Some sources have told The Independent that one or two players were initially affected by the boos at the Riverside, and remained upset. This came up in the squad's conversations about their planned response to it all.
The decision taken then - as stressed publicly by a captain in Jordan Henderson and a genuine activist in Tyrone Mings - was that the players were going to take the knee and that was that. Any supporters need to get educated or get ignored. The players rightfully feel it would represent some kind of defeat to stop kneeling that would also defeat the point. Mings similarly spoke of how there is nothing they can now say that would stop some people booing. As such, the players don’t see why they should waste any more energy on it, or get distracted by discussing it further. They are just going to collectively take the knee and be single-minded about it.
While it almost feels distasteful to link such a serious issue to how the team play, the two are again intertwined. Single-mindedness on taking the knee can actually foster single-mindedness in performance. It can bring clarity.
It is just another way Southgate’s selection issues reflect the wider situation. He is seeking a clarity of his own. He is trying to figure out what this England is.
He just has to work out how he fits it together. To illustrate the problem, take the issue of the forward line, and Harry Kane’s role.
The striker is a guarantee of goals and England’s best player, but that importance does more than dictate one of the names on the starting line-up. The way he plays dictates everything about England.
Kane is famously a number-nine who is really a number-10, who will always seek to drop back. A specific issue Southgate has is that many of his most special players - Raheem Sterling, Mason Mount, Phil Foden, and Jack Grealish - fill the same space. To get them in one of Southgate’s preferred protective formations, you are denying another place to the fast attackers running off Kane that really make his role work and can make the team devastating.
If Southgate seeks to play as many of these forwards as he can, it creates an overloaded and imbalanced team primed to be picked off, especially in international football.
A further problem is that two of his fastest players in Rashford and Sterling have been off their best for some time. That feeds into the broader issue of some of Southgate’s most experienced players being either off form or off fitness just as we go into this rare opportunity of a tournament. He has big decisions to make on Henderson and Maguire as well as Rashford and Sterling.
It is another little irony that England’s first game is against Croatia, the technically proficient side that eliminated these players from the last World Cup. Perceptions have changed since then, along with so much else.
England are now seen as the superior side, expected to win. That expectation, itself arising from 2018, frames much of this.
But then maybe Croatia are exactly the right opponents to help frame the tournament. The game may help show that this England is at its best with a different team for every game, with different weapons to suit different opponents. Nuance is possible. It’s why Southgate’s final considerations aren’t necessarily indecisiveness.
They may well be a necessary flexibility. The same may be true of the tournament as a whole. Nuance is possible there, too.
The ultimate legacy would of course be victory. The deeper legacy may well be that this fine young team change the way England talks about itself, that they force difficult conversations, and ultimately constructive conversations. One constant argument is that taking the knee is by now no more than an “empty gesture”, but that was from months in front of empty stands. You only have to see the effect now people are back. It is why Mings said those who boo aren’t lost causes. If even a few of those who boo eventually stop and think about it - it will be a spectacular success. But then it is already inspiring young players - like Maziar Kouyhar - to speak out about their own experiences of racism. That can be seen with this squad. For years, non-white players were expected to almost just accept the reality of racist abuse. This group are saying no more. It is already a win in that regard.
There is a real football opportunity here, that of course shouldn’t be overlooked. England should be aiming to win Euro 2020. But it is not just an opportunity for victory, and ending 55 years of hurt. It might be for something greater than victory, and a hurt that goes even deeper.
As Southgate figures out the team, the players may well help England figure out itself.