With the dust still settling after a month of breath-taking football competition in Russia, the French national team parading their victory alongside the Champs Elysees, and sky rocketing waist-coat sales in the UK, few would now remember the many controversies that surrounded FIFA’s decision to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia.
England, let us remember, was also a candidate to host the tournament, but it was clearly defeated in the vote of the Executive Committee, many of whose members are now either in jail or suspended by FIFA’s own ethics committee due to several charges of mismanagement and corruption.
The England team, for once, surpassed expectations in Russia. It has come back home with a commendable fourth position, and its captain, Tottenham Hotspurs striker Harry Kane, was the top scorer of the tournament.
The calm and composed figure of England’s manager, Gareth Southgate, was perhaps the best image of the unity and feel-good factor that this young and ethnically diverse England team has created over the last four weeks.
In the run up to the important semi-final against Croatia, Southgate reflected on football’s ability to unite divided communities: “Our country has been through some difficult moments recently in terms of its unity, but sport can unite; I hope that fans at home are enjoying our results after what has been some tough two years for the country”.
The England manager, in his press conference, was referring to the well documented power of football to facilitate dialogue amongst different groups and communities: the public sphere of football that research in the FREE (Football Reserch in an Enlarged Europe) Project, clearly identified a few years ago.
Football, like many sports, is a transnational and cross social activity with a common language easy to understand. While it creates rivalries, it also provides a platform for dialogue that can unite people around a common purpose, in this case the English national team.
Of course, it is disingenuous to think that the results of England in the world cup will make differences about Brexit go away. It is true, however, that having common platforms for dialogue across society and getting people to talk to each other is a first step forward.
Looking into the future, many pundits believe that this young English team has the opportunity to do better in future tournaments. In that respect Gareth Southgate has already suggested that the FA and himself have their sight in the 2020 European Championship.
It will be the first senior international football tournament that England play after leaving the European Union in March 2019, although it might still be during the so-called implementation period.
Euro 2020 is a special tournament, for it will be played in a number of cities across the whole European continent, from Baku to London and Glasgow. Wembley, in the English capital, will host three group stage matches, a game in the round of 16, the semi-finals and the final of the competition.
Hampden Park, in Scotland, will host three group stage matches and another game of the round of 16. It will be, therefore, the time for the UK to welcome European teams and fans – a unique opportunity to reconnect with people across the channel.
In football terms, a more mature national English team playing at Wembley could, perhaps, really bring it home. Looking at it more widely in socio-political terms, Russia has demonstrated over the past four weeks that a football tournament provides a major platform to promote a country’s image.
Euro 2020, therefore, will be the perfect moment for England and Scotland to harness the power of football to rebuild any bridges that Brexit might have damaged. The world cup, unfortunately, has not (yet) come home, but Russia 2018 has provided some hope for the future, even if it has not sorted Brexit out.
By Borja Garcia, research investigator for the 28+ perspectives on Brexit team at The UK in a Changing Europe.