Voices: ‘We all want to be loved, right?’: We should be ashamed of the way we treated Gareth Southgate

“We all want to be loved, right?”

As those words tumbled out of Gareth Southgate’s mouth last night – after England stormed through to the Euro 2024 finals by beating the Netherlands 2-1 – it felt like an entire nation collectively lowered its head in shame.

After weeks and weeks of incessant criticism, doubt and scathing judgement, the England manager finally cracked and we saw the first glimpse of the toll the pressure had taken on him. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for him – and full of regret.

Emotion is an intrinsic and vital part of football. The highs and lows of watching your team win or lose – be it club or country – are deeply felt in communities around the world. When it comes to national football and international competitions, the emotion seems even more super-charged.

Look no further than Cristiano Ronaldo being moved to tears while playing for his country against Slovenia in the earlier rounds of the Euros. We all watched as the 39-year-old appeared to be inconsolable after the excellent Slovenian keeper, Jan Oblak, saved his penalty in extra time. Ronaldo was seen to be sobbing uncontrollably on the pitch.

Nobody likes to see a grown man show emotion, do they? Unless… it’s on a football pitch. Then, let’s be honest, it all adds to the box-office-worthy entertainment.

Ultimately, Ronaldo and Portugal were saved by their goalkeeper Diogo Costa, who repelled all of Slovenia’s penalties in the shootout, to set up a quarter-final with France. “Even the strongest people have their [bad] days,” Ronaldo explained afterwards. “I was at rock bottom when the team needed me most. I was sad at first but now I’m happy. That’s what football is. Moments, inexplicable moments.”

It’s for the same reason that the cameras linger on the distraught faces of the losing team’s players at the end of a televised match. We’re just far more interested in observing the pain of defeat than the pleasure of victory. And there’s an undeniable level of intrigue that comes with watching how men deal with it, in particular.

As mild-mannered Southgate answered journalists’ questions last night, his measured responses are exactly what we’ve come to expect from football managers and players. Carefully briefed by their PRs, deeply emotional responses are a rarity, and calm, well-drilled soundbites are commonplace.

So that chink of honesty we saw when Southgate let the world know how hurt he’d been by the widespread criticism of his managerial style and match-day strategy, was refreshing – and unexpected. Perhaps that’s why it hit home so strongly.

Football has long perpetuated the toxic image of “hypermasculinity”. Thankfully, this has begun to change over the past decade and outdated stereotypes have gradually been challenged. Southgate’s honest and humble words can only serve to help that cause.

Football will always be an emotional catalyst. One might even argue it creates a unique space for those who might find the expression of emotion difficult elsewhere – a natural place to build positive relationships, share experiences and express ourselves. And that can only be a good thing.

So, while we revel in the glory of our national team reaching the finals of the Euros, let’s take a moment to loudly applaud Southgate. Not just for proving his critics wrong with what appears to have been a spectacularly good tournament strategy, but for showing the world that it’s OK for a man to openly show vulnerability and sensitivity.

It’s endearing, refreshing and highly admirable. If only we could say the same about the way we’ve treated him.