How the roar of Three Lions has lifted a nation

Arise Sir Gareth. All hail Raheem Sterling CBE (he's only an MBE at the moment).

The glorious sight of a busy Wembley Way
The glorious sight of a busy Wembley Way

Forget last night's result. Even before the final the Euros has been a triumph – back of the net!

I know I will not have been alone in thinking in advance that the tournament would have been a damp squib, with meaningless games played in empty stadiums while the world at large, the real world, continued to grapple with being in the stranglehold of a deadly pandemic.

What little British interest there was would evaporate with a shrug of the collective shoulders as the home nations suffered the traditional humiliating defeats against the second teams of minor countries and be dumped out in the group stages to set up the inevitability of a final between Belgium and Germany or somebody like that.

Frankly, I found some of the group games tedious. A slightest contact above the waist and a player would go down writhing in agony holding their face. Must be something to do with acupuncture points, I think. And the penalty area is the zone that releases particularly inventive theatrics of the Tom Daley variety.

Watching another bore-fest which commentators had built up as the greatest game on earth, my wife would say something unknowledgeable like: "Why have they gone from one end to the other to pass the ball back to the goalkeeper? Aren't they trying to score at the other end?"

The refereeing, the analysts have agreed, has been splendid, which is another way of saying they have allowed it to be a contact sport within the rules of the game. It also gives me an opportunity to mention my one and only experience of being a match official, when I ran the line at a game for under-10s.

If you can imagine Mr Bean running the line at a football match, that is the closest I can get to conjuring up the scene. I had an incomplete understanding of the offside rule (no offsides from throw-ins – fancy that!) but was aware that a linesman was expected to wave their flag from time to time.

It must have been the one and only occasion in the history of football that a linesman was substituted at half time.

So with the Euros, what's gone wrong? Or rather, what's gone right?

The competition has brought fantasy and escapism, and we could all do with some of that, not in spite of being in a global pandemic, but because of it. Everybody has suffered from a denial of freedoms, but one of the most profound and damaging of freedoms must be the denial of the opportunity for joy.

The Scottish had their moment to cheer as they caused England discomfort on their home turf. The Wales team created some stirring memories. I think Northern Ireland were unable to take part because of the Brexit protocol, but with England the Three Lions found their voice and sent a roar throughout the nation.

Sir Gareth has been on a personal journey, with the weight of two dates, one on each shoulder. One is 1966, and the mythology of England's World Cup victory, and one is 1996, when it was his penalty miss against Germany which saw England knocked out of the Euros.

When I talk about the mythology of 1966, it is because I tend to the heretical view that it was not quite as big a deal at the time as we might think. I'm not saying it was not a big deal, but in those days it was a big sporting deal.

Footballers were sportsmen, not celebrities, and it was a proud sporting achievement which was covered on the sports pages and, so far as I can tell, didn't trouble the front pages so much because they were for news and journalists at the time treated football as, er, football, and not the all-consuming thing we now have.

That famous Kenneth Wolstenholme line "they think it's all over... it is now!" took years to gradually secure itself a place in football folklore.

There was no match preview and post-match analysis in the studio running longer than the play action itself. Watching his last World Cup, the late Wolstenholme found it so boring that he turned down the sound.

In modern times there are more cameras covering a single game than the BBC even owned in Wolstenholme's day (according to him).

Today a national game is a national passion extending to all walks of life. A footballing win can lift a nation. For a while the dark clouds of a terrible pandemic can be dispersed through the radiating warmth of the feelgood factor brought by sporting success.

To misquote Bill Shankly, some people say football is only a game, but today it's more important than that.

Farewell to the Euros 2021, or 2020, whatever history decides to call them.

They began with a near tragedy which put everything in perspective. And ended in triumph – with glory, drama, and heartache along the way.

Now for the World Cup...

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