Why can't we enjoy England's football win without politicising it?

1 August 2022

7:45 PM

1 August 2022

7:45 PM

Not everything has to be politicised all the time. Some things are just news. Often bad news, such as an erupting volcano or a motorway pile-up.

But just occasionally there is a brilliant happening that defies all but the most obsessive hunters of snark or seekers of negative political agendas. The England women’s football team winning the European championships by beating Germany in front of a full house at Wembley yesterday must qualify as one of those.

Let joy be unconfined. It certainly was down on the south coast where I was on Sunday. Heavily tattooed balding men with bull terrier gaits wore their England shirts with pride and punched the air in delight, just as they would have done had the men’s team won a big final (we can dare to dream).

The cheering from the local sports pub could be heard hundreds of yards away as Chloe Kelly stabbed home what proved to be the winner in extra time. Chloe, who was freshly recovered from a career-threatening anterior cruciate ligament injury, went to the same secondary school in West London as my own children. As the late, great rugby commentator Bill McLaren might have put it were he still around and were it not also the school holidays: ‘They’ll be cheering that one in the staff room at Elthorne Park High School.’

GettyImages-1412041872.jpgChloe Kelly celebrates scoring the winning goal with team mates Lauren Hemp and Jill Scott (Getty Images)

A brilliant England team, full of players who are a credit to their mums and dads, did the business in every round of the tournament. Not only besting the Germans, they also got past the highly-rated Swedes and Spaniards in earlier knock-out rounds and walloped all-comers in the group phase. Their victory did not unleash any ugly jingoism whatsoever, not only because everyone agreed about how brilliantly managed they were by the Dutch Sarina Wiegman, but also because the delight of the players was not laced with triumphalism, but with humility.

And yet the snarkist tendency is not entirely stilled. Throughout the tournament, the BBC has worried about the team being ‘too white’, as if by picking her strongest starting eleven Ms Wiegman was infringing the diversity quota code which increasingly regulates every aspect of our lives. In fact, the 23-player squad contained three players from non-white ethnic minority backgrounds, almost exactly matching the make up of English society as a whole.

It may well be true that the full sporting talents of black Britons are not yet being fully utilised in women’s football, given their notable over-representation in the ruthless meritocracy that is men’s pro-football. But to wallow in angst about this in the midst of so much success – as one BBC presenter did earlier in the tournament and as the BBC website has also done – requires an almost deranged affinity to ID politics.

There is in fact a widespread recognition at the elite level of the women’s game that a move towards setting up out-of-town centres of excellence and away from inner-city facilities has led to access to top-level coaching becoming more difficult for girls from under-privileged backgrounds. But this being kind and far-sighted England, that issue is already being addressed.

There were, of course, plenty of snarky social media posts to be found which contrasted the conduct and success of the women’s team with that of the England men’s team, which you may have heard has not won a major trophy since 1966. Yet that is largely uncalled for too. Our footballing men have come close to triumph in both of their last two tournaments.

Not only that, but lynch-pin players such as Harry Kane and Declan Rice were following this tournament closely, posting their own encouraging and congratulatory social media messages throughout.

A lingering sense of injustice about the exclusion of previous generations of women from football – the FA banned the women’s game between 1921 and 1971 – is quite understandable. It really should not have taken nearly so long for such an absurd and unjust prohibition to have fallen away.

But the BBC, which has generally done such a sterling job covering the sport in recent years, should be aware that it is hardly bomb-proof itself on this stuff.

Way back in 1988, while a student journalist, I interviewed the head of the Women’s FA, a lovely lady called Linda Whitehead who was running it on a shoe-string budget out of sheer love for the game. I subsequently wrote to the then-boss of BBC Sport urging him to devote some coverage to women’s football, only to receive a wholly dismissive reply.

Here, one could resort to observing that people in glass houses should not throw stones. But that would not really be apt because on the occasion of the England women’s football team being crowned champions of Europe – and no doubt inspiring new generations of English girls to take up the sport – there is really no need for anyone to throw any stones at all.

As a woman once said on the steps of Downing Street: ‘Just rejoice, rejoice at that news’.

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