Gareth Southgate (Photo: Getty Images)
Gareth Southgate (Photo: Getty Images)

OPINION

Gareth Southgate is the symbol of positive masculinity we’ve been waiting for

Stories of his kindness are almost too plentiful to keep up with – and he’s leading England towards victory. Caroline O’Donoghue, along with the nation, is charmed by the nicest man in sport

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Here’s something I’ve been wondering for a little while now: who is the Emma Watson for boys? Who’s the hero who contains the multitudes that young people need from their heroes – someone who is effortlessly cool, while simultaneously epitomising good old-fashioned manners, who is both a trailblazer and an introvert, who is on-trend and yet apart from it? I think of everything Emma Watson means for young girls: the hero who played a heroine in films and strived to never betray that heroism in real life; who goes to UNICEF; who creates feminist bookclubs; who tells the tabloids where to go.

After much debate and conferring with the people in my life who know about football, I have decided that it’s Gareth Southgate. The Rock is Beyoncé for men and Southgate is Emma Watson for boys.

The cult of Southgate has been growing over the last few days, as singing Three Lions has gone from ironic to sincere. I didn’t know who the hell he was until a week ago. I am a Jilly-come-lately to football and this is the first World Cup I’ve watched since 2002. I know next to nothing about football, but I also know that what Southgate represents transcends the parameters of the people who follow it week to week, who know every relationship, every reference. This is classic, cross-cultural hero-building – a zero-to-hero rise last seen in Disney’s Hercules. In other words, Southgate is “so hot, he makes steam look cool”. 

Why? Well, a few factors: first of all, the fact that Southgate was disgraced in 1996 when his saved penalty prevented England going on to the European Championship final against Germany makes him an attractive prospect as an underdog. But, for many, the fact that he volunteered for the penalty in the first place – as a young player, not at all famed for goal-scoring, simply because no one else was willing to bear the responsibility of England’s potential win or loss on their shoulders – makes him a hero.

Gareth Southgate comforting Columbian player Mateus Uribe (Photo: PA)
 

Fast track to now and the guy is leading England to potential victory with a level of empathy and gentleness reminiscent of Babe politely asking sheep to move into a new enclosure. On Tuesday, he comforted players from the opposing team when they missed a penalty, pulling the entire world’s heartstrings at once, inviting us all to fall in love with him – he knows what it’s like! He’s felt the shame of his nation on him before and he hates that anyone else has to go through it, regardless of what team they’re on! Stories of his kindness and belief in his fellow players are almost too plentiful to keep up with. Danny Rose, a Tottenham player who has suffered with injuries and subsequent depression that has kept him off the pitch for most of last season, has credited the World Cup as his “salvation” and Southgate as the one who delivered it to him.

“I know I’ve been very lucky and I’m going to do everything I can to repay the manager. During my rehab… I would occasionally have dinner with him. Even away from here I’ve had the odd text message or phone call – one of his best qualities is that he’s one of the nicest men I’ve come across in football.” 

It’s so, so, so important that we don’t spend all of our energy smacking down young boys over what they shouldn’t be and instead show them what they should be

Last week, Southgate hit the headlines for encouraging Fabian Delph to leave Russia in order to be with his pregnant wife. Something that, to a non-football fan, feels like “well, duh”, but to the insular, hyper-brotherhood that is football it’s kind of revolutionary.

If I sound over-excited by Southgate, it’s not because I find football a hugely exciting game. It’s because I’m delighted that, in the world of sport, we’re finally celebrating people like Southgate. Last year, my nephew was calling Conor McGregor – a man who beats people to a pulp for a living and attacked a bus because he couldn’t control his own rage – his hero. Young men are being radicalised by Reddit and a Jordan Peterson-style pseudo-intellectualism that suggest their anger and violence is justified and should be encouraged. We’re living in the age of toxic masculinity and, while it’s vital that we examine and criticise that, it’s also so, so, so important that we don’t spend all of our energy smacking down young boys over what they shouldn’t be and instead show them what they should be.

So, let’s pretend for a minute that football does come home. Or, let’s say it comes close. Is there any better symbol for young boys of kindness, grace, excellent waistcoats and empathy than the England manager who got us there?

@Czaroline

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Gareth Southgate (Photo: Getty Images)
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