Hypocrisy, opportunism, exceptionalism – the three foundational pillars of a country that increasingly looks to be losing its grip on any semblance of sanity or reality.
Sunday night should have been a moment of unity and celebration for a fractured England, and instead it descended into a zoetrope of all the toxic traits that have marred this nation for far too long.
Before we go any further, let’s make a couple of things abundantly clear.
Firstly, Gareth Southgate’s immensely talented, thoroughly decent squad of young men has given us every reason to be proud over the past month. Their heroics on the pitch have gifted the country a fleeting moment of buoyancy as it continues to circle the drain of decency, and they’ve done it all while conducting themselves with an admirable sense of self and a morality that a fair few people would do well to learn a thing or two from.
Secondly, in no way, shape, or form was last night's gut-wrenching defeat to Italy Bukayo Saka’s fault. Nor was it Jadon Sancho’s, nor was it Marcus Rashford’s.
Penalty shootouts are a lottery – it's a cliche, but there’s a reason why that is the case. Any England player could have missed their spot-kick, any England player could have seen their effort parried away by the colossal Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Granted, it hurt like hell to watch the national side come so close to a trophy after more than half a century of disappointment, but I promise you, however gutted you were, however deep the pit that opened up in your stomach was as Roberto Mancini’s side streaked away in jubilation, it wouldn’t come even remotely close to the heartache and guilt that those three young men were feeling.
And the saddest thing was that we all knew what was coming next.
Within minutes, a torrent of vile, racist abuse was doing the rounds on social media. It was inexcusable, it was completely illogical, and it was entirely unsurprising.
Do you want to know why England players have continued to take the knee throughout this tournament, despite constant jeering from their own fans and a spew of criticism from bafflingly-anointed political commentators like failed thespian turned mayoral wooden spoon holder Laurence Fox and box room ventriloquist dummy Darren Grimes? This is why.
Despite what these attention-seeking, self-serving swindlers would have you believe, this is not a political statement. This is certainly not a Marxist crusade designed to brainwash the youth of our nation into overthrowing society and establishing a Communist hellscape in a state of gleeful stupor. This is a group of genuine, principled lads – many of whom have suffered abuse throughout their whole lives because of the colour of their skin – who have simply had enough.
Deep down, their critics know this, and so they strive to undermine them with scare tactics and buzzwords that work people into a frenzy. Ask the average person on the street to explain what Marxism is and most would struggle – but that doesn’t matter. By that point, the bigots have their witch hunt, and anybody championing equality and tolerance in the name of common sense are dismissed as hyper-woke outliers.
But let’s not beat around the bush here, Boris Johnson and his inner circle of vampiric cronies have a lot to answer for.
The Prime Minister’s refusal to condemn supporters booing the taking of the knee earlier in the tournament was exactly the kind of dog-whistle validation that certain people were waiting on.
Johnson is a charlatan and an opportunist, and he knows on which side his bread is buttered. So what if he throws a few black footballers under the bus, as long as he can provide a political home for the socially-antiquated without overtly vocalising anything that could land him or his party in hot water?
To rub salt in the wound, as soon as it became apparent that Southgate’s men were going to venture deep into the latter stages of the competition, he and his cabinet began to milk them for all they were worth.
Priti Patel can’t dismiss a peaceful reaction to legitimate grievances as “gesture politics” while posing for staged photo opportunities on Twitter as her PM stands outside Downing Street on a 60 foot England flag surrounded by enough bunting to make a Morris dancer blush.
Do these people lack the capability to process self-awareness, or do they genuinely believe that the rest of us are too dim to notice their hypocrisy? They are truly, utterly shameless.
As usual, Johnson wants to have his cake and eat it as the rest of us scrap over breadcrumbs, and it’s made all the more worse by how painfully hollow and insincere he is.
Seeing the Prime Minister sport an ill-fitting England shirt under his blazer at Wembley in midweek, it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have looked more at home and less conspicuous in a full suit of armour. Actually, scratch that, it probably would have gone over better with certain key demographics. At least Johnson had the presence of mind to cut the tags off his strip, unlike Rishi Sunak.
All of this bear-baiting and duplicity speaks to a much broader issue. The stench of exceptionalism is nauseating, and it’s slowly sinking its way into the fabric of Englishness.
Whether it’s Johnson flip-flopping between ally and antagonist, the swathes of racist trolls spitting vitriol from behind the barricade of an anonymous Twitter account, or the ugly scenes we saw in London yesterday as crowds of fans without tickets tried to force their way into Wembley, there is a growing and concerning tendency for people to act as if they are above reproach.
Every example set, every flimsy justification given for the widening social divides in this country, every time we see this atrocious behaviour go unpunished, it convinces more and more onlookers that they have the divine right to say and do whatever the hell they want. What they fail to realise, however, is that if everyone is special, nobody is.
Last night should have been joyous. In so many respects it still was – even in defeat, even in spite of the best efforts from the worst of us. But it was also a night that left a bitter aftertaste and more than a sting of national embarrassment.
Anybody who saw fit to clash with stewards in the capital or racially abuse a teenager on social media after the most unimaginable heartbreak of his career should be deeply, profoundly ashamed of themselves because right now, as the dust begins to settle, if there is anybody in this incredibly flawed country that is truly special, it’s Gareth Southgate’s England squad.