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At Euro 2024, a Very England Fight Misses the Point

LocalAt Euro 2024, a Very England Fight Misses the Point

The problem, really, boils down to a single word. Unfortunately, that word — the key word in all of this — is not one that can be used here. But you know it. It is an adjective, a noun, a verb and most often an exclamation. You might say it when you stub your toe, or spill a cup of coffee, or realize that you have accidentally hit reply all.

Or, if you are Gary Lineker, you might use the word on a podcast to describe an England performance at the European Championship. In this case, the one the team delivered in its soporific draw with Denmark, but it might also have applied to much of the win against Serbia and the stalemate with Slovenia, too.

Reduced to its core elements, then, it might be hard — particularly to outsiders — to understand why the word has caused such consternation.

Lineker, a respected former player and a judicious pundit, suggested that England had played poorly. This is ostensibly true. Gareth Southgate, the England coach, spoke after the very same game of needing to “hit the reset button.” The players have admitted that they have not performed well thus far.

England’s contribution to Euro 2024 currently stands at two goals and one victory in three games, and a place in the knockout rounds despite mustering fewer shots than all but a couple of other teams in the tournament. Nobody has disputed the accuracy of Lineker’s one-word analysis. Had he used slightly more P.G.-friendly vocabulary, the chances are nobody would have batted an eye.

The word, though, seems to have cut deep. In part, that is likely because the language of punditry still avoids the scatological, as vaguely old-fashioned as that sometimes feels. And it is, in part, because of the outsize — and somewhat contradictory — role Lineker plays in the British soccer-industrial complex.

He is best known, to everyone, as the anchor of the BBC’s coverage of major tournaments and the Premier League, a post which generally precludes him from offering too much of an opinion. Sitting in the “Match of the Day” chair every weekend, he is supposed to be an impartial arbiter, the man in the smart shirt and dress sneakers asking questions, not offering answers.

But Lineker in recent years has also become a remarkably successful podcast impresario, a documentary film producer and all-purpose media maven. Goalhanger, his production studio, is responsible for four of the top 10 podcasts in Britain. It was on one of these, “The Rest Is Football,” that he used the word.

Of course, on that platform, Lineker is perfectly entitled to give his unvarnished view on anything he likes; he is not governed by the often arcane conventions of the BBC. Lineker does what he can to draw a line between his podcast and television personas, though often this essentially amounts to swearing on one, and not on the other.

But the distinction is a subtle one, and it is not helped by the fact that his two interlocutors on “The Rest Is Football,” Alan Shearer and Micah Richards, also appear on “Match of the Day.” To the public, Lineker is supposed to be the embodiment of neutrality. Hearing him be so scathing is akin to seeing David Attenborough pummel a dolphin.

Still, though, that does not adequately explain why Lineker’s choice of argot has come, over the last week, to dominate the discourse around England’s Euro 2024 campaign.

There would, certainly, seem to be more pressing issues to address than whether a 63-year-old television presenter — even one who once served as his country’s captain — is allowed to swear.

Has Southgate’s decision to break character and name a bold, crowd-pleasing squad left him with a team he does not fully understand? Is a sudden tendency to try new ideas for no more than 45 minutes and then abandon them when they do not work immediately a good thing? Does the fact that Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden have all been identified at various points as the root of all of England’s ills not suggest that the issue may be structural?

That the news media has instead been attracted to a story about bad language is not really a surprise: Lineker is a high-profile, polarizing figure; the games themselves have been intensely boring; and, deep down, everyone loves a fight.

For the players, though, it has come to symbolize something far more urgent: the issue of what, precisely, the role of the media is during these tournaments. And that has highlighted a long-running and quite possibly irreconcilable schism over how the relationship between a national team and journalists — former players or not — is meant to work.

“I would never want to be disrespectful to any player, especially a player who has worn the shirt and knows what it is like to play for England,” Harry Kane said in response to a question about Lineker at a news conference last week. Kane’s appearance was slightly unusual; he had, clearly, arrived with a message to send.

“What ex-players now have got to realize is it is very hard not to listen to it now,” he said. He felt that instead of criticizing the team’s performances, former players in particular should be “as helpful as they can.”

“Building the lads up with confidence would be a much better way of going about it,” he added.

Declan Rice has advocated the same approach. “Let’s have some positivity going into games,” he said. “Let’s give players the best confidence in the world. Tell them they’re the best players in the world. Make them read that and think: I’m going to go out there and perform and give it absolutely everything.”

In both of those assessments, the role of a country’s news media is to act as a cheerleader, to “support us during the tournament, and then judge us after,” as Kane put it.

This is, it should be noted, standard elsewhere. An image circulated on social media last week, in the aftermath of Scotland’s defeat to Hungary, showing a Scottish television reporter — dressed in somber work attire — standing next to a contingent from Hungarian television, all of whom were wearing their team’s jersey.

And while the tension over the media’s role is not new — Lineker, doubtless, felt the same way as Kane and Rice during his own England career — it has been exacerbated by the climate in which his successors have been conditioned to exist.

Local newspapers, for so long the first to hold the clubs in their communities to account, have been so hollowed out by cuts that many (not all) have been tempted into telling readers what they want to hear, rather than what they need to know. Players find influencers, happy simply to bask in their reflected fame, a rather more appealing audience than journalists. Access to players is ever more tightly controlled. So, too, is what they are prepared to discuss.

As predictable as this conclusion is, though, that is not what the news media is there to do. Lineker was, undoubtedly, a little disingenuous when he suggested in his response to Kane’s response — the soccer commentariat snake eating its own tail — that it was all the work of a “tricky” media “stirring the pot,” since what is he, after all, if not part of the media?

But he did not need to pass the buck. His job, as either a television host or a podcast magnate, is not to support England blindly.

He was not personal, or abusive, in his assessment. Compared to the bile and the vitriol on social media — where exaggerated negativity is rewarded — his analysis was comparatively tame. Maybe his choice of word was jarring, the dissonance of hearing your parents curse. But it was not inaccurate. It is telling, really, that England’s players have not disagreed with what he said, merely with his right to say it.

TRANSALPINE GALL Perhaps Ralf Rangnick knew what was coming. Not much more than six weeks ago, the 65-year-old coach was on the cusp of the crowning glory of his career.

Bayern Munich wanted him not just to oversee its team but to transform the club: excise an older generation of players, modernize the facilities, institute sweeping changes. Rangnick would, in other words, have the chance to build one of Europe’s greatest soccer institutions in his own image.

And then, just when everyone thought a deal was near, he turned it down. He wanted, he said, to see through the job he had started with Austria. At the time, it seemed an odd decision; instinctively, it felt as if there must have been a dispute about money or control or something. Nobody rejects Bayern Munich so they can get knocked out of the group stages of a European Championship.

It has not, you will have noticed, worked like that.

Austria, along with Switzerland, has been the revelation of Euro 2024, beating Poland and the Netherlands to top Group D, ahead of France. It did so while playing the whirlwind, high-intensity soccer that Rangnick has long espoused and to some extent — at least in its modern incarnation — helped to popularize.

The likelihood remains, of course, that Austria’s adventure will come to a close relatively soon, in the Round of 16 on Tuesday, or maybe the quarterfinals. But it is hard not to feel as if Rangnick has crafted one of the few teams in this tournament that has a real sense of itself: a clear identity, a defined purpose, a honed intent. There is a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless, that Rangnick has not missed his shot at a crowning glory.

CONCERTINA That Austria — and the Swiss, don’t forget the Swiss — can go into the last 16 with their eyes uplifted and their horizons expanded is testament to the trait that makes international soccer, increasingly, such a ray of sunshine.

Europe’s domestic leagues spend so much time, and expend so much energy, in telling everyone how competitive and unpredictable and thrilling they are that it is hard not to feel they are protesting just a little too much. There are upsets, of course, and there is drama, but most of us know, deep down, that ultimately the decisive factor tends to be raw economics.

That is not true of international soccer, where even the heavyweights are watermarked by flaws. France and England have both been stultifying. Spain and Germany have impressed sporadically. Only Portugal seems unruffled, and it seems to have decided to spend large parts of games playing with 10 men.

And that, of course, means that success is not quite so out of reach to outsiders, to the teams that do not have the weight of talent of the favorites but do have a well-drilled system and a sprinkling of talent. The landscape is flatter, and the gaps narrower, and that creates actual uncertainty. Which is, really, how sport is meant to be.

BLUNT EDGE Have you seen who the leading scorer at the European Championship happens to be? That’s right, it’s Own Goal! Own Goal is having a great tournament! I wonder if Chelsea will try to sign Own Goal! Or, if they are unattainable, maybe the current runner-up: Romelu Lukaku without V.A.R.!

These jokes are, of course, all very funny and not in any way derivative, but they also offer quite a neat encapsulation of what is rapidly becoming one of this era of soccer’s defining traits: the scarcity of actual strikers. That is not to say they do not exist. They do. It’s just that they tend to be quite old (Robert Lewandowski), feel ambivalent about playing up front (Kylian Mbappé) or have been constructed in a laboratory (Erling Haaland).

At the risk of making an overly bold prediction, this will not last. Youth development in soccer is cyclical. Academies tend to focus on producing the sorts of players that are lacking in the senior game. For a long time, that meant neat midfielders and “inverted” wingers. The next iteration may well be physically imposing, coldblooded forwards.

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