England's men's team are days away from a first ever Euros final. Though Gareth Southgate's squad may seem to have the backing of a united country, it's not quite as simple as that, reports Matt Pearson from London.
The word "home" has never been far from the minds and mouths of English people lately. Who gets to call the country home? How long should we stay at home in a pandemic? And, most emphatically now, is football coming home?
The strength of disagreement about lockdowns, masks and immigration have exposed deep wounds in the country, but, on the surface, Euro 2020 seems to have healed them. Or more likely, draped a bandage over them for the time being.
"We're as one now," said defender Kyle Walker in an interview published on England's Twitter account on Thursday, while Southgate hailed England as a "special country," adding that he "couldn’t be prouder to be an Englishman."
They may be broadly right in judging the public mood but national pride in England, as in many places, is fraught and complex. The nation's football team, and the St. George's cross in particular, carry the stigma of decades of violence, nationalism and the type of exceptionalism that many feel is the default setting of the current government and its supporters.
Three little words
As English men, women and children — many of whom may not have known who Kalvin Phillips or Declan Rice were a month ago — are suddenly gripped, and one three-word phrase has become a mantra; one shouted in the street, hung from banners in shops and belted out on the terraces. And it's not "Take Back Control."
Well, it's difficult to say with any real certainty. The song, originally penned by Ian Broudie, Frank Skinner and David Baddiel for Euro '96, was a tribute to the enduring hope of football fans even in trying circumstances. It's right there in the first verse.
Everyone seems to know the score
They've seen it all before
They just know
They're so sure
That England's gonna throw it away
Gonna blow it away
But I know they can play
For many, it still stands as that. An ode to the sort of gallows humor and self-deprecation that is among the more positive traits in the loose sense of national identity many hold. The reworking of Atomic Kitten's 2000 pop song "Whole Again" to feature the couplet "Southgate you're the one, you still turn me on" is another example of the creative wit of English fan culture.
But at Wembley over the past month, those songs have also been sandwiched between controversial chants such as "No Surrender to the IRA" and "Ten German Bombers." The former is based on a sectarian slogan often associated with paramilitary unionism during the Northern Ireland conflict, the latter is a reference to the World War II.
It's such songs, sung by a particular strain of Englishmen (and it's nearly always men), which embody the crossroads that English patriotism appears to be at, and which have made the flag so problematic for some.
But those men are a minority and, as England prepare for their first final since 1966, flags flutter across the nation in numbers only usually seen on Conservative party Zoom calls. It's a sight almost never seen outside of a football tournament.
Common ground tough to find
And therein lies the point. At a time when beliefs are so entrenched and so easily stoked by those with vested interests in division, the last month has seen a slow burning sense of national unity creep across a country that has recently seemed unable to find common ground over much at all.
Though it feels like it at times, football cannot exist in a vacuum and it cannot stop the spread of the delta variant, which continues to spike alarmingly. In fact, there's a chance these games at Wembley will accelerate its spread. A noticeable drop in mask wearing since Prime Minister Boris Johnson's announcement that they'd only be required for another week or so is a reminder of the challenges England still must surely face as it continues to forge its own path.
Southgate's side have managed to rise above the political sniping without ignoring the politics. In fact, they've tackled it head on, from Marcus Rashford's campaigning for school dinners to the persistent taking of the knee before games to Southgate's open letter to the country before the tournament.
The popularity of the coach and his squad is sky high. Perhaps it's mostly because they're winning, but it's also allowing their considered messages to be heard.
Despite home secretary Priti Patel describing taking the knee before matches as "gesture politics" and Johnson refusing to condemn the booing of the action pre-tournament, both appear to now be avid supporters of a young, multicultural, socially conscious and engaging group of players.
While many doubt the sincerity of politicians, there is some sense that this team, many of whom are from immigrant backgrounds, are standing for something more than sport.
Regardless of whether that theory holds, the nation will once again stand, sing, curse and cheer as one on Sunday.
It could be the last time for a while, as England continues to grapple with exactly what type of country football might be coming home to.