(Reuters) – England’s performance at the European Championship can help in uniting the country, manager Gareth Southgate said ahead of Sunday’s opening game against Croatia.
England, semi-finalists at the 2018 World Cup, are deemed one of the favourites to win the European showpiece but their build-up to the tournament has been marred by some fans booing players for the anti-racism gesture of “taking the knee”.
There were jeers from a small section of spectators at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough when players took the knee before England’s friendly wins over Austria and Romania last week.
“I think it’s time for the country to unite, full stop,” Southgate told the BBC on Friday. “If the team can be a catalyst for that then that’s brilliant.
“I think the England team is often a catalyst for bringing people together … so of course in the process of doing that we want to play well, we want to win, we want to excite people, but not all of that falls upon us.”
The Three Lions revived the country’s love affair with football when they reached the semi-finals of Euro 1996, which was held on home soil.
Southgate, who was part of coach Terry Venables’ team which lost to Germany in the last-four that year, said it was time for England to “remember what a strong nation we are”.
“We’ve had lots of division and sometimes we need to remember what a strong island we are, what a strong nation we are, the great qualities that we have,” he said.
“There were moments at the beginning of the pandemic that were so powerful where people did pull together, I think we should always be striving towards that.”
(Reporting by Manasi Pathak in Bengaluru; editing by Richard Pullin)