London (AP) – Hannah Kumari has been an English football fan since she was a child, but she never wanted to fly an English flag. Until now.

Kumari is one of millions of fans excited to see England’s men’s team reach the finals of a major tournament for the first time since winning the 1966 World Cup. But like many British colored people, she has an ambivalent relationship to symbols of English.

But hugging her has become easier thanks to the young, multi-ethnic team that is about to triumph at the European Championships. After beating Denmark 2-1 in the semi-finals on Wednesday, which was followed by half of the country’s population, England face Italy in the final on Sunday at London’s Wembley Stadium.

“When I woke up this morning, I thought, ‘I’m going to buy a St. George’s flag to hang out the window for Sunday,'” said Kumari, who was born in England to an Indian mother and a Scottish father and grew up the day after the Denmark game.

“I’ve never owned an England shirt,” said the actor-writer.

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“Something has definitely changed,” she says. “I almost feel like this team gave me permission to feel like I could wear an England shirt.”

The past few years have been tough for England and the rest of the UK. Britain’s exit from the European Union – a decision partly due to a backlash against immigration – left the country scratchy and divided. More than 128,000 people have died in the UK during the coronavirus pandemic, the highest number in Western Europe.

Euro 2020 – the name is a year out of date due to the pandemic – caused much-needed excitement and fun. Millions of lockdowns and bad news support a team whose members speak out against racism, kneel before games, support LGBT pride, fight poverty and most importantly, win games.

For decades, the support of England has been synonymous with disappointed hopes. The lyrics of the country’s most popular football anthem, “Three Lions”, were published in 1996 and commemorates England’s 1966 triumph and the long drought that followed: “Thirty years injured has never stopped me from dreaming.”

Those 30 years have turned 55, but England is dreaming again.

The country’s hopes rest on a team that is very different from the all-white team of 1966. A poster created by the Museum of Migration showed what the English team would look like without the players whose parents or grandparents were born abroad: only three of the 11 starting players remained. Stars were missing, including team captain Harry Kane, whose father is Irish; Marcus Rashford, whose mother is from St. Kitts; Raheem Sterling, born in Jamaica; and Buyako Saka, a Londoner with Nigerian parents.

The team is known less for wild off-field antics than for the social responsibility embodied in 23-year-old Rashford’s campaign against child poverty, which convinced the government to restore free lunches for thousands of poor children.

Last week, Kane, 27, wore a rainbow armband to support LGBT pride during England vs Germany game.

The players are young multimillionaires, but celebrate their local and international roots. Rashford’s childhood in a Manchester working class community inspired his work against poverty; Kalvin Phillips is a proud son of the northern city of Leeds; Sterling calls himself the “Boy from Brent” after the London borough where he grew up.

For some, their success helps make English proud rather than awkward.

The English make up 56 million of the UK’s 67 million people, but the country’s English patriotism and the red and white St. George’s flag have long been shunned by liberal-minded Brits who come in with soccer hooligans and narrow-minded little Englanders Have been linked. Britons have been viewed as a more welcoming identity by many British and foreign-born citizens alike.

England’s rugby, cricket and soccer teams have done a lot in recent years to rid the English flag of its negative associations. The increasing importance of Scottish and Welsh flags and symbols as these countries gained more political autonomy over the past two decades has also led many people to ponder what English identity means.

“There has been a tremendous intergenerational shift towards a civic and inclusive English identity that transcends ethnicity and belief,” said Sunder Katwala, director of equality think tank British Future. “Most migrants to the UK have not identified themselves as English, but interestingly, their children have.”

Katwala said sports teams and tournaments are not promoting social change but “ratifying this change that has taken place in society”.

“When I was a teenager, we associated football with all the negative aspects of English identity: violence, racism, hooliganism,” said Katwala.

He said the modern, multicultural England team was part of a “culture shift” that had changed “the public debate about what English is”.

Not everyone thinks the national soccer team is the best thing about England. Some conservative commentators have mocked the players as uncomfortable “waking up”. Team members were booed by some fans as they got on their knees before the Games against Racism. Interior Minister Priti Patel criticized the kneeling, calling it “gesture politics” and declining to condemn the booing.

The victory silenced much of the criticism, at least temporarily. Politicians have jumped on the British bandwagon. Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has often criticized protests against racism and Britain’s imperial past, attended the game on Wednesday and awkwardly wore an England shirt over his shirt. He’s under pressure to declare a national holiday if England win the final on Sunday.

Some have compared Britain’s political leaders negatively to the unremarkable national team coach Gareth Southgate, who has forged his youngsters into England’s closest squad for many years.

If the tournament was therapeutic for England, it is redeeming for 50-year-old Southgate too. He played for England in the 1990s and his failed penalty kick in the 1996 European Championship semi-finals gave Germany the win.

Opposition Labor Legislator Thangam Debbonaire urged Johnson to study at the Gareth Southgate School of Leadership.

“The British will wonder who they want to lead. Do you want someone who works hard and focuses tirelessly on embodying British values, or do you want the current Prime Minister? ”That was what Debbonaire said in the House of Commons.

Southgate wrote an open letter to the team’s critics at the start of the tournament, saying its players would not “cling to football” and keep quiet about social issues.

“I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players,” he wrote. “I realize that we are heading towards a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our boys will have a big part in that.”

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