ST PETERSBURG (Reuters) - Everyone loves a winner, but the English public’s embrace of its national team goes beyond the routine pride in sporting success.
For a country bitterly divided by the Brexit referendum as well as by age-old regional and class divides, the national team’s journey to the World Cup semi-finals has been a welcome relief from political arguments and rancour.
But it is not merely a case of a temporary burst of patriotic fervour papering over the cracks in society.
There is something about this young England team and their articulate manager Gareth Southgate that has created a genuine connection not felt for a generation.
Much focus has been on Southgate himself who, in a country where few politicians enjoy much popularity, has received universal approval ratings.
“Southgate is a gentleman to use old-fashioned language. He’s polite and self-deprecating, but - and this is crucial - he is ambitious and successful with it,” Observer columnist Nick Cohen told Reuters.
“He’s a million miles away from the Boris Johnsons and Piers Morgans who fill our TV screens. He comes from a better version of England than we are used to seeing,” he said.
Southgate’s approach, refreshingly free of the usual football management cliches, has had an impact beyond that of his tone, however.
England’s final warm-up game before heading to Russia was held not at London’s Wembley Stadium but at Leeds United’s Elland Road in Yorkshire, with Southgate explicit that he wanted to engage with fans from outside the capital.
In a heavily centralised country where so much media focus is on London, the current team is drawn from across the land, with the starting line-up for the 2-0 win over Sweden featuring seven players from the North of England and just skipper Harry Kane born in the capital.
The team also features several players of Afro-Caribbean heritage including Raheem Sterling who was born in Jamaica.
“The players come from the multi-ethnic working class. They look like the country we’ve become, and they too are behaving like admirable men. Also we’re actually winning matches, and that is a welcome change,” said Cohen.
The success has seen many social media feeds that were until recently full of partisan content around Brexit, taken over by memes about the England team and the now ubiquitous “Three Lions” song.
On the surface at least, football appears to have healed some of the division caused by the referendum.
David Goodhart, whose book “The Road to Somewhere” examined the differences between Remain-voting urban cosmopolitans and Leave voters who emphasise local community ties and traditional values - groups which he called “Anywheres” and “Somewheres”, senses that the World Cup has had an impact.
“I think anything that brings the country together like a good World Cup run or the 2012 Olympics (different countries of course) almost by definition bridges Somewhere/Anywhere gulfs at least for a short time,” he said
“But they can also reveal gulfs. It is noticeable how relatively few England flags there are in London, especially the central areas, compared with most of the rest of the country.”
England’s recent tournament failures created an almost hostile dislike of the team, with fans frequently criticising the attitude of the millionaire players who failed to deliver.
While the squad has a big input from the top Premier League clubs, with Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool well represented, many of the 23 featured for lower division teams earlier in their careers.
That experience of tasting the less glamorous side of the game appears to have had an impact on the players’ attitudes and behaviour, which contrasts with some of the previous national sides.
“There’s certainly no sense of the entitlement you got from the (Steven) Gerrard, (Frank) Lampard, (Wayne) Rooney axis,” says Mike Shallcross, an England fan and writer on men’s health issues.
“You get the sense that Southgate has been part of the team when England have bowled into town, declared themselves favourites and crashed out playing these horribly imbalanced teams full of stars, and overelaborate systems they barely understand. He knows what traps to avoid”.
While there are elements of the accidental about the situation England find themselves in - after all, Southgate only became manager after his predecessor Sam Allardyce was forced out following a hidden-camera recording of his comments on player transfer rules - at least part of England’s popularity has been the result of astute public relations from the Football Association’s communications team.
Southgate lowered expectations before the tournament, highlighting his team’s youth and inexperience, with the result that the public was ready to be forgiving and began to view the side almost as underdogs.
The domestic press, criticised by some in the past for putting too much pressure on the team and being excessively critical, have been given better than usual access to the players, many of whom have been happy to share their back stories.
For Southgate, that is more than just good PR.
“The players have a voice, too. They can influence young people, especially from the areas where they came from. They can give hope to them”.
(This version of the story corrects mis-spelling of ‘self-deprecating’ in paragraph six.)
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Hugh Lawson