The Power of England

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Right, I’ll make this brief, as I know we’ve got a date with the Italians very shortly.

There are just a few things I’ve wanted to say about this England team — and to this England team, if they’re reading — about the summer they have given me and the impact they have had on all of us in this country, regardless of the score when referee Björn Kuipers blows the final whistle tonight.

Sunday, the 11th of July, is a historic day. This is certainly the biggest game I’ve been involved with, either as a player or as a presenter.

And I’ll be honest, there were times in my life when I feared it might never come.

I was too young to remember the 1966 World Cup final, and truthfully, I’m sick of hearing about those days of yore — sorry guys!

Since I’ve retired from playing, I always said that I had two main ambitions left in life: 1) To be there broadcasting live for Leicester winning the FA Cup; and 2) to do the same for England in a major tournament final.

All of a sudden, I could have both at Wembley in the space of a couple of months. It’s mind-blowing.

This is certainly the biggest game I’ve been involved with, either as a player or presenter.Gary Lineker

Before the tournament, Gareth Southgate wrote to you about how everyone has their own special memories of watching England that shape and stay with them. Well, allow me to share my own.

I was only five in 1966, so my first real memories of watching England were at the 1970 World Cup, with the Gordon Banks save, the Bobby Moore tackle, facing up against Jairzinho and Pelé.

Around that time, my dad had a card school with his mates once or twice a week at our house. Engelbert Humperdinck, who was a Leicester lad, was among the many who used to come round and play all night. And I mean all night. These sessions would last 24–48 hours. I would wait behind my dad and, if he was winning, he might slip me a pound, while my mum would come round every now and then with sandwiches and a bit of dinner.

The only thing that could ever stop that endless card game in its tracks was England.

It has stayed with me how when England played West Germany in the quarterfinals of that tournament, everyone put their hands down — no matter what they were holding — turned around and focused on the telly.

England went 2–0 up, then it was 2–2 and then 3–2 Germany, as Gerd Müller scored in extra time. Everyone around the table was transfixed for 120 minutes.

Werek/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Werek/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

And then it was over, England had lost, and the men turned back around and my dad started dealing out cards again. Just like that.

I was left heartbroken. But that moment started my journey as an England fan.

That story is probably quite similar (maybe minus Engelbert Humperdinck at your dining table) for many people in the country. When England are on, everyone stops in their tracks to watch.

Think about it. What unites us as a nation like football? Nothing. It is a kind of magic, really.

That is the power of football. The power of England.

And this team in particular — this group of 26 young lads and their manager — has taken it to another level, bringing so much pride, joy and togetherness to a nation that is so often stuck in division.

In their brilliance on and off the field, this team represents the very best of England in its diversity, dignity and shining social conscience.

To a man, they are thoughtful, empathetic and articulate. And they are changing what it means to be an England footballer.

It’s incredible, really, especially when you consider how young they are — they're just kids! Though I can’t claim any part in their development, watching them I feel like a proud father.

When I was in my 20s, I wouldn’t say boo to a goose, let alone do the things that Marcus Rashford — though it should never have to be his responsibility — is doing to help underprivileged youth. The same goes for the amazing work of Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and many more.

Visionhaus/Getty Images
Visionhaus/Getty Images

They are truly inspirational, and also brilliant footballers. And we the fans have responded to that.

The atmosphere in a near-full Wembley on Wednesday night for the semifinal was electric.

There was a moment before the game when I was sitting with Jürgen Klinsmann and we both watched in awe, soaking it all up, as the entire stadium — English, Danish and everyone else — belted out “Sweet Caroline” at the top of their lungs.

There is such joy in having people back in stadiums. People who want to make the most of it and get behind this team after the year and a half we’ve all endured.

I know there will always be a segment of the “fans” that won’t be so well-behaved. I don’t want to get into some of the less savoury scenes, because that is not what this piece is about, but I will say this.

Booing? Really? Come on, we’re better than that.

Sing songs, get drunk, throw pints, have fun. That’s what we do. That’s our culture.

But when you boo other national anthems and our own boys taking the knee … when you act out your worst impulses, often in the name of “patriotism,” honestly most of us are embarrassed by it.

You can call yourself a patriot, but that’s not what the word means to me. As someone who loves England deeply and is proud to have represented this country 80 times, my view is that true patriotism comes from caring about the values that not only your country has, but also those it aspires to hold.

True patriotism comes from caring about the values not only that your country has but those it aspires to hold.Gary Lineker

It irritates me when basic ideas of empathy and conscience are twisted into notions of anti-Englishness, when in fact those values are among the most English of all.

I’ve got no special advice to give you players ahead of tonight. You’ve made it further in a tournament than I ever did.

No one needs to hype you up for this game. You know what this means and what you’ve got to do.

You are the right players at the right time with the right man in charge.

All I want to say to you is that the country is really proud of you. You’ve given everything and you’ve stuck together.

Now there is one more step. Just more of the same, please.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

I wish I was playing with you. This is the sort of occasion you dream about as a player. And honestly, it’s much less nerve-racking out on the pitch than in the stands. The adrenaline takes care of the nerves and the tiredness.

It might sound strange to those who have never experienced it, but it was these knockout games, the really big-pressure moments, the extra time and even the penalties that I relished the most.

That chance to do something that other people will never get a chance to do. Go places where mortals will never tread. Who ever gets that opportunity? What better chance to show off who you really are?

Treasure it and, most of all, enjoy it — though, let’s be honest, you only will if you win.

But I’m confident you will win things. This is only the beginning, and this special group has many more years ahead. I really believe that, regardless of what happens tonight.

It’s mad, almost ridiculous, how much this game, this tournament, means to us.

But it does matter.

If you win tonight, even if it’s just for a night, a week, or a month, it will stop us all in our tracks to focus on something good.

To celebrate the best of England.

And we’ll all go absolutely bonkers together.

Right, let’s go.