In European Championship football, there are two possible outcomes: a win or a loss. A draw will be decided by penalties. In this competition, the game has a finality lacking in the Football League.
What the Championship, the League and every competitive match in the land have in common – be they played at Wembley Stadium or in your local park – is that both sides have a single aim: victory.
This provides a context in which to assess the hullaballo about Gareth Southgate and political leadership, exemplified by words broadcast to millions of viewers in the wake of England’s Championship win this week over Denmark.
“The standard of leaders in this country the past couple of years has been poor, looking at that man (Southgate), he’s everything a leader should be, respectful, humble, he tells the truth”.
The identity of the speaker was a reminder that footballers, no less than politicians, are capable of putting their own spin on events. It was Gary Neville.
“Labour,” he tweeted, on election day in 2019, confirming that in his view Jeremy Corbyn comes closer to his ideal of political leadership than Boris Johnson.
Neville is a man of the centre-left who has been repeatedly critical of Conservative governments and may still be thinking of a career in politics.
But there is more to the Southgate phenonemon than the take of a single footballer-turned-pundit. For the England manager seems to be, in a cautiously modulated way, left of political centre himself.
“For me a lot of the undertones of the voting on Brexit were racial undertones,” he said three years ago. Then there is his recent letter to England – not his team, that is, but to the entire country.
As the letter moves from this last Covid year through Southgate’s childhood to his grandfather’s military service to pride in one’s country and the role of social media, the reader might wonder what his purpose is.
Is to it rebut claims that his team don’t care enough about playing for their country? Or to warn them about the dangers of becoming engulfed by Twitter? Partly.
But near the letter’s end, his main aim becomes clear. “I have never believed that we should just stick to football,” he writes. “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.”
This is the voice of what some whose politics are right-of-centre might describe as “deep woke”. And when the England team takes a knee before these Championship matches, it is certainly “putting debate on the table”.
But before ConservativeHome loses itself itself in the detail of the letter (did anyone help Southgate draft it, by the way?), let’s stand back for a moment, and look at the bigger picture.
In doing so, let’s acknowledge that Southgate and Neville’s political views are their own business. And go further, conceding that the former was right to air some of his as he did. And further still, by assuming that Neville’s point this week was right.
Perhaps Southgate is more respectful than Boris Johnson – who, if you haven’t worked it out by now, was Neville’s main target. Maybe he is more humble. Perhaps he is indeed more truthful. (We doubt that has ever described a claim made about him as “a pyramid of piffle”.)
Even if all this is so, it doesn’t follow, as Neville implied, that football leadership is translatable into political leadership. Why? Because of the footballing anthropology that we described at the start of this article.
There have been politicians who apply the language of winning and losing to the politics of peacetime. But the more one thinks about it, the more one comes to see that to do so is a category error.
Politics in wartime, like a football game, concentrates on one end: winning. And, admittedly, some government activities in peacetime have the same stamp about them – beating, say, the Italians to a major arms sale abroad, for example.
But should we be exporting arms at all? Some say yes; others say no; others still think it depends. Whatever your view, the question is one to be resolved by democratic debate and votes.
That doesn’t hold for England’s participation in the European Championships – which is simply (and rightly) taken for granted. In any event, what’s to be done with the proceeds of our imaginary arms sale?
Should these be spent on support for young people at risk of homelessness, as Neville presumably wants – having drawn attention to their exposure when allowing rough sleepers to stay in a property development that he part-owed?
Or should they go instead on supporting free school meals, a cause taken up by Marcus Rashford? Or to young people who are critically ill as well as social deprived? (Scotland’s captain, Andy Robertson, has set up a charity to support both.)
In short, the Prime Minister isn’t a player-manager picking the right team to achieve a single objective. Rather, he’s seeking to meet a mass of objectives at once – with millions of different, differing voices shouting in his ear about what these should be.
England managers face intense scrutiny and potential humiliation. But Gareth Southgate won’t face Andrew Neil for his post-match interview if Italy win on Saturday.
Nor must he deal with the consequences of bringing Sajid Javid off the bench – a decision even more momentous than bringing on Jack Grealish. After all, the latter isn’t responsible for rising queues for treatment of people at risk of death.
Nor have the players who Southgate selects for his squad, together with those he doesn’t, the power to vote him out of his job, in the way that Conservative MPs can dismiss the leader of their party.
Southgate has never had to face a queue of raging people in a constituency surgery. Or the mass consequences of a local factory closing. Or of a financial crash. Or a mass terror atrocity.
He might rise to the challenge of all these better than Johnson or Gordon Brown or David Cameron. But how far would telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth get him at the despatch box of the House of Commons?
Or with the “feral beast” of the lobby? Or Britain’s voters, for that matter? “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” cried the Daily Mail as Theresa May launched her 2017 election manifesto.
The paper had a point. And the voters took fright. By contrast with May’s detailed prospectus, Johnson’s 2019 successor said almost nothing at all, other than what people wanted to hear. Which of them gained a majority of 80?
Legend has it that at the apex of West Wing mania, back in the early 2000s, a group of American voters demonstrated to demand President Bartlett.
The real-life England manager is fulfilling the same function as the imaginary U.S president: namely, the yearning for a more simple world and, on the Left, for a different Prime Minister (having quietly given up on Keir Starmer).
“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that,” said Bill Shankly. Very droll but no it isn’t.
And if you still think politics and football are interchangeable, try this: would you really want the Prime Minister managing England on Saturday? Let alone the Leader of the Opposition.