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Euro 2020 and the big coming out can help restore football’s collective value

We want to be free, to do what we want to do. We want to throw beer in the air. We want to dress up as Gareth Southgate in his kindly Victorian undertaker phase. And that’s what we’re going to do (with appropriate clearance and a favourable infection curve). We’re going to have a good time. We’re going to have a party.

Watching the England squad announcement for next week’s World Cup qualifying triple-header it was easy to get lost in the familiar tropes, the muscle memory of a springtime tournament run. Here is an earnest man in a suit behind an FA-branded lectern. Here are heated radio show discussions about defensive midfield options. Here, as ever, is The Problem With The Squad.

This is a key part of the show. There must always be some lurking flaw to pick at. In the past this might have been injuries to key players or a shortage in a certain position, perhaps even a century of furiously blinkered coaching by men in blue cotton tracksuits.

This time around we have something new. At time of writing the main problem seems to be that England have too many good players. Bundesliga tyros, age‑group prodigies. The options, well, the options are overwhelming. This is what’s going to do for us at Euro 2020. England are simply too good at football.

It certainly makes a change from the normal run of events as we enter the familiar period of blame and recrimination before a major tournament.

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Except, of course, in reality all of this feels a little out of step with where we are right now, a place where shared anxieties over sickness and economic collapse must now intersect with shared anxieties over the Grealish-Foden midfield axis and the “excitability” of England’s No 1 goalkeeper.

Jack Grealish and Phil Foden, two of England’s most exciting of many attacking talents, in action against Iceland in November.

Jack Grealish and Phil Foden, two of England’s most exciting of many attacking talents, in action against Iceland in November. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

It is probably worth taking a step back at this point. These Euros do feel vital and urgent – but for reasons that go beyond the usual stuff and into notions of what this beleaguered, relentlessly more-ish game is actually for.

We can get rid of the actual football stuff quite quickly. England are quite good and might do well, although so are the five teams above them in the Uefa rankings, and frankly it doesn’t really matter that much either way.

Southgate should pick his most energetic team full of young, fun, exciting players.

He should play three at the back and a midfield pivot of Declan Rice plus one because this is how you win tournament games, although it should be emphasised – no, really – that this also doesn’t really matter.

The front four should be a fluid mix of Harry Kane, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Marcus Rashford, because these are the best players and it doesn’t really matter that much anyway.

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And this is the real point. It never actually mattered if England won these tournaments. It definitely doesn’t matter now – and not because this one is less important. Quite the opposite, in fact.

There is no need to restate here that this has been a miserable, atomising, grief-sodden time for so many people. What has become clear is that this process is not about to reach a natural end note. There will be no hats-in-the-air moment, no VV day where we embrace in the public squares and life is abruptly declared to be good again.

And while, like me, you may recoil instinctively from the idea of enforced football gaiety, of sport as cajoling national celebration, the fact is the nearest we’re going to get to a ceremonial coming out right now is football.

This is what these Euros are for. All being well (yes, I know) the restrictions on gathering together will be lifted on 21 June. The next day is England v the Czech Republic at Wembley and Scotland v Croatia at Hampden Park. You can, needless to say, imagine the scenes.

And let’s face it, we need this. We need a nice moment. We need to feel the sun on our backs, to drown in honey just a little. I don’t care if the Belgian attack is too nimble, or the Spanish midfield is able to recycle possession with annihilating efficiency. I don’t care if England end up somehow playing three right-backs (they will). I haven’t even seen any non-English people since last year and it is simply a delightful prospect to have everyone here.

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Crowds in Hyde Park watching England’s 2018 World Cup semi-final. Comparable scenes will not be possible this summer but some semblance of collective joy can return.

Crowds in Hyde Park watching England’s 2018 World Cup semi-final. Comparable scenes will not be possible this summer but some semblance of collective joy can return. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Reuters

I want to dodge vomit in a stairwell. I want to see a TV news feature about a butcher in Rotherham with a 6ft Tyrone Mings offal cake. I want to be jostled on the tube by the kind of middle-aged England fans who look like they’re about pull a heist on a branch of C&A in 1987. Even if this is all nothing more than a summer haze, a lost month between second and third waves, I just want to feel something.

Who knows, it could end up being one of the great summers of British sport, and for reasons that have nothing to do with winning trophies. This is the other thing about Euro 2020, this displaced brand-event, an intruder from another timeline. If these Euros can give us anything, it is a return of that basic sense of collectivism, of sport as a shared real-time experience, as opposed to the digital corporate entertainment product of the past year.

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At a time when the right to assemble and the joy of shared human space have become politically difficult concepts, football will return as what it always seems to be: a source of dissent, unity and joyful disobedience.

There is a temptation to end by saying the release of pressure, the feeling of a free hit, might actually have a liberating effect on the pitch, a rare moment of grace at a major tournament. But for now it just feels like a moment to come together.

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