ROBERT COLLS: What the British flag says to Europeans baffled by Brexit

There is a beautiful moral simplicity in sports competitions. Win or lose. Inside or outside. So how good it is that England, who voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, has succeeded so well in a competition called Euro 2020.

After the Brexit vote, the outgoing President of the Council of the EU, Donald Tusk, warned that the country would become a “secondary player”.

Is that so? What about his own country, Poland, which did not make it past the group stages, or Angela Merkel’s Germany and Emmanuel Macron’s France, who were eliminated ago? A few days ?

We may no longer be partners with the EU, but without a doubt football is Europe’s national game and everyone is invited.

Wimbledon is nice. The Tour de France is difficult. Alpine skiing is absent on Sunday afternoon. Formula 1 always draws crowds. But football is the special.

All over Europe, people are sitting in bars and parks, beers in hand, glued to their television screens.

Boris Johnson shows his support for England in Downing Street ahead of Euro 2020 final

But in this country, the success of Euro 2020 was particularly important at a time when our sense of national identity is being tested.

Traditionally, England has been a country that doesn’t really make flags – neither public nor private. But holidays and bank holidays they go out. Like Christmas lights, or party balloons, or bare breasts, they’re popping out for now, and then to everyone’s relief, they’re put back where they came from.

It was once the Union flag for our four constituent nations, but increasingly they are the separate flags of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I have the impression that the working class crosses the cross of Saint George with the greatest fervor because they are not afraid – unlike many metropolitan elites – to show their pride for their country. Indeed, there are few precious flags hanging like laundry on garden balconies in the affluent Hampstead district.

In a time when the liberal intelligentsia seems to have abandoned the nation state (including their own), the Red Cross is now pouring white vans and bedroom windows across the country and, of course, Downing Street.

How important it is that the cross of St. George is the battle flag of the peasant revolt in 1381 and also of the anti-royalist Puritan regiments of the English Civil War.

If England wins tonight, there will be red crosses everywhere and the Labor Party will have to relearn the mountain it has to climb (flag in hand).

An English fan waves flags at BOXPARK in Croydon as he watches the Euro 2020 semi-final match between England and Denmark on Wednesday

An English fan waves flags at BOXPARK in Croydon as he watches the Euro 2020 semi-final match between England and Denmark on Wednesday

English supporters wave a flag ahead of the UEFA EURO 2020 semi-final soccer match between England and Denmark at Wembley Stadium in London

English supporters wave a flag ahead of the UEFA EURO 2020 semi-final soccer match between England and Denmark at Wembley Stadium in London

We can discuss the origin of modern sports until the cows come home, but there is no discussion of football. In the words of Arthur Hopcraft, author of The Football Man, it is “inherent in the people”.

As a boy growing up in Tyneside, I played with a soccer ball in the morning on our moms last night call under the light of a lamp.

It is of course true that there is a dark side to people’s play. The boos of the opponents’ national anthems and the German flag at Wembley were a disgrace and manager Gareth Southgate should have said so.

My mother’s generation really beat the fascists. In her retirement home during England matches, the living room was full of women sitting on their knits, cheering with all the passion of a Kop end.

When we left the EU, most Europeans were bewildered, more than angry. They wanted to know why a country they respected might not understand its own interests. Nor could they understand why we should let the masses decide on such a complex issue. In other words, they could not understand the interest of national sovereignty.

Dozens of English flags fly over the Kirby Estate in London ahead of Euro 2020 final

Dozens of English flags fly over the Kirby Estate in London ahead of Euro 2020 final

Meanwhile, the opinionated classes here were so angry that they ran out of opinions and instead resorted to abuse.

Talk about the crumbling red walls! Some pro-Labor intellectuals have spoken of denying the right to vote to poor and uneducated people.

But that’s where we are, still lagging behind Brexit – but we’re fine and most important of all, we’re accountable to ourselves for what’s going on.

The real point of national identity is not what we think of others but what we think of ourselves.

And facing Europe must say something to all our European neighbors who are wondering why we did what we did.

Win or lose is up to us – and not just ‘us’ of course, as no man is an island, and all of our young English sporting talents have been led by outstanding European coaches and led by great players. Europeans.

But when the jersey comes on and the lions roar, it’s up to us: guys from Sunderland to Jamaica, and Gareth Southgate the manager, the man who was said to be too bourgeois for football.

Each age must redefine what nationality means. Football brings us together, whoever we are. We’re not looking for a new England but this time for the first time in our lives it looks like football could come home.

  • Robert Colls is Emeritus Professor of History at the International Center for Sport History and Culture in Leicester and author of This Sporting Life: Sport And Liberty In England 1760-1960.

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