The following article from Nick Giles originally appeared in City A.M.
So here we are – England’s World Cup dream is over for another four years. But despite the heartache of last week, this tournament has left an indelible mark on many millions of hearts up and down the country.
Gareth Southgate’s team showed a fearlessness and togetherness that marked a stark contrast to the splits and divisions that have blighted so much of the national discourse over the past few months.
As each phase of this remarkable World Cup passed, it was beginning to look increasingly plausible that Volkswagen’s “Complete Confidence” ad campaign had, unwittingly, called it right.
The self-satisfied SUV-driving dad with “England Champions 2018” tattooed onto his forearm was transforming from a deluded fool to a wise sage.
Two weeks ago, when Southgate talked about the youth and diversity of his team representing a vision of “modern England”, you knew this was a very different leader to previous England coaches.
He managed, more eloquently than our political leaders, to make millions of people up and down the country believe in something positive. “In England, we’ve spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is, and I think as a team we represent that modern identity, and hopefully people can connect with us.”
And we did connect.
A youthful, exuberant, skilful group playing with a fearlessness that was at odds with the excruciating agony of previous tournaments. They won our hearts, and we admired their cool courage.
Fearlessness isn’t a word England supporters would typically associate with the national football team.
Fear of failure, and specifically the fear of the penalty spot, has been the crippling, anxiety-inducing undoing of so many that have worn the England shirt over the past 52 years.
Many highly regarded professionals came to dislike playing for England, gave the impression that pulling on the white shirt was the least enjoyable part of their playing careers, and retired earlier than they should.
The England manager’s position didn’t become “the impossible job” for nothing.
But somehow, incredibly, that all changed this summer. With a remarkable lightness of touch, Gareth Southgate transformed the national team from a laughing stock to genuine contenders.
New ideas, clear plans, no egos, trust in the team, belief in young talent and “owning the process” became the mantras at the heart of England’s golden summer.
He took players that were “ordinary lads” and made a virtue of their time in the lower leagues.
For a manager whose own playing career was defined by a penalty miss and the 22 years of ignominy that followed, he channelled his own personal anguish to help a young, unheralded cohort approach the tournament fresh, anxiety-free, and brimming with confidence.
Not only was there no sign of fear, it looked as though they were having the time of their lives.
Like many of the best in business, he showed an appetite for new ideas, innovation, and collaboration – seeking advice from winners in rugby union and cycling – to more left-field reference points in American football and speed skating.
But his strategies went beyond set-pieces on the pitch – looking after the minds of the players as well as their moves. We saw his emotional intelligence and compassion when consoling players on the losing side, and he opened the door to psychologists to build team spirit, confidence, and to banish fear from the dressing room.
As The Times reported last week, Dr Pippa Grange was instrumental in helping England win its first ever World Cup penalty shoot-out and stride past Sweden into the semi-finals.
Her view is that it takes more than carrots and sticks to get people to keep performing and strive for excellence: “Athletes, like everyone else, want something to believe in, a vision that they can invest in, and an organisation that they are proud to belong to.”
Many entrepreneurs talk about fear of failure as a personal motivator, but the sense of belonging to something meaningful is what binds teams and underpins the success of the best businesses.
The increasing sense of purpose as a driver, of affecting things that are bigger than the bottom line, can deliver sustained success over the long term.
While England fell short of reaching the final and lifting the ultimate prize, this young team – with its smart, thoughtful, and likeable leader – has given the country a shot of positive adrenaline that’s been absent for too long.
Southgate has given us something bigger to believe in. Right now, that’s a powerful thing.