As England fans slowly come to terms with the fact that it’s not coming home (not yet at least), they’re beginning to reflect on what turned out to be a magnificent tournament. The Three Lions have united the country, and let’s face it, we really needed that right now. But perhaps the biggest thing to come out of all this is what the boys have taught us about how to be men. Oh, and the fact that waistcoats are now cool again.
Here was a team that revelled in their vulnerability, celebrated it even. They enlisted the help and expertise of Pippa Grange, a sports psychologist. A lot of work was done before the players even set foot in Russia. They held group sessions with Pippa, in which they shared their anxieties and intimate details about their lives. It was a way of helping each other through their mental issues, and also forged a deeper respect and understanding of each other. In a world where men still find it hard to talk about their feelings and the problems they face, how refreshing to hear that the England team, cheered on by millions, did just that?
Gone were the stern-faced, cold, calculating managers of previous eras; Gareth Southgate endeared himself to the whole country with his kind, honest, and thoughtful approach to the game. The players also managed to open themselves up to the public, putting it all on the table for us to see. They shared the highs and the lows, they gave candid interviews, and they even joined in with the memes.
Consider Danny Rose, who told the whole world that he suffered with depression – a fact even his parents weren’t privy to. Consider Raheem Sterling, eloquently explaining the meaning behind a tattoo of a gun, days after courting controversy with it. These men didn’t close themselves off, didn’t shy away. They stood up, faced their demons, and allowed us to watch them do so.
And watch them we did. Millions of us flocked to pubs, crowded around television screens, sharing a wonderful experience with strangers from all walks of life. Adults, who had only ever experienced World Cup heartache, dared to dream again. Kids began their love affair with football, an affair that will possibly last their whole lives. People who had never watched a football match in their lives joined with those who had watched every game, and they watched a group of young boys with the hopes of a nation on their shoulders.
It’s startling to think that the average age of this England squad was 26 years old. They demonstrated a level of maturity that far exceeded their years. They showed young men across the country that it was acceptable, encouraged even, to express emotion, to discuss difficult topics, and to do so with eloquence and grace. They have been perfect role models for boys (and girls), demonstrating exactly what men should be.
Even though it all came crashing down against Croatia, it’s safe to say that we’ve gained more than we’ve lost in the last few weeks. We learnt that it’s okay for men to hope and dream, it’s okay for men to cry and console, and it’s perfectly okay to wear waistcoats again. The World Cup might not be coming home just yet, but the boys who played their hearts out in Russia will be – only this time, they’re returning as men.