Image: Marcus Rashford and Gareth Southgate after England's semi-final against Croatia. Rights: PA Images/Aaron Chown
The England football squad may have lost to Croatia last Wednesday night but our country won anyway. We won something bigger than a game: a sense of pride and connection we hadn’t felt for a long time.
I know this sounds corny as hell – but bear with me because I know you felt it too.
Cynicism and pessimism comes naturally to us Brits. We build it as a shell around us, to protect us from disappointment and justify our fears of a nation falling apart. The divisive politics of the last few years has only hardened that shell.
But for a few weeks this summer it started to show cracks. For a few beautiful, long weeks as the anticipation and pride and expectation kept building up, we came together in a way we hadn’t for a while.
There were mosques draped with the England flag. There were Hindu mothers and young Muslim boys doing faux-prayers in front of the TV. We shared memes, laughs and songs of “it's coming home” in countless multicultural settings. We showed that pride in England can be expressed in lots of different ways. We even got Harry Kane into a Bollywood song!July 10, 2018
For once we got carried away with a sense of national pride without bitterness or division. This tells us two important things.
England is crying out for a more inclusive and unified sense of identity. It is crying out for leaders to bring it together not tear it apart. Football may not be loved by everyone but it did a better job of unifying us than our politicians have been doing lately.
And it says something important about patriotism too.
Immigrants and their children (like me) have never needed to be told to support this country or cheer it on. Most of us would gladly do so if we were welcomed as equals.
But our political leaders have largely preferred to berate us to ‘sign up to British values’ (code for: be more patriotic) rather than rouse us in the cause of the nation as fellow citizens. It took one man in a sharp blue waistcoat to show that nationalism needs to be inspired not lectured out of people.
If we welcomed immigrants, talked to them about rights and responsibilities but treated them as equals, they would willingly embrace their British identity. This isn’t rocket science - the last few weeks have been living proof.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been inundated with messages, journalists and cynics, asking if this positive feeling will last. Whether we won’t just go back to the despair and division that has become our staple.
To them I have always said this. Sport has always done far more to unify this country than our politics. It has always been ground-breaking black and Asian sports stars (Cyrille Regis, John Barnes, Linford Christie, Kelly Holmes, Mark Ramprakash, Amir Khan, Mo Farah) - who have visibly redefined what it meant to be British.
Now this generation of footballers, and cricketers such as Moeen Ali and Monty Panesar, are redefining what it means to be English. But the main reason it's taken us so long to get here is because our political leaders have utterly failed to do their part.
The England team effortlessly displayed patriotism and diversity, they inspired unity and good manners because they lived those values. Now it’s time for our politicians to do the same.