By Ben Church, CNN
Football has a magical way of bringing people together and perhaps no country knows that more than England.
After beating Czech Republic 1-0 on Tuesday, Gareth Southgate’s side finished top of Group D, setting up a potentially enticing tie against one of Germany, France, Portugal or Hungary in the round of 16 of Euro 2020.
The performance at Wembley, cheered on by thousands inside the stadium, will give fans a renewed sense of optimism after England struggled to get the better of old rival Scotland in Friday’s 0-0 draw.
Chants of “Football’s Coming Home,” the chorus to the “Three Lions” song, echoed around Wembley almost as if to tempt fate this summer.
The nation is football mad — 20 million viewers tuned in to watch Scotland and England — and as is always the case during major tournaments everyone has an opinion on what’s right and wrong with the national team.
Whether or not this England side can win its first major tournament since the World Cup in 1966 remains to be seen, but what’s not in question is the impact this team has had off the pitch.
This is an England team that has shown it isn’t afraid to stand up and speak out about issues such as poverty and race.
During Euro 2020, Marcus Rashord has been used as an impact substitute during the tournament thus far, but the Manchester United forward has gained international recognition for securing free school meals for vulnerable children across the country and encouraging kids to read more.
Rashford has achieved that rare feat — having a real impact on policy; and as a result a real impact on the lives of many.
Meanwhile Raheem Sterling, scorer of England’s first goal against Czech Republic, has shone a spotlight on racism and social media abuse, calling out the media for his treatment and standing up against discrimination.
A team making a difference
Before a ball was even kicked at Euro 2020, England manager Gareth Southgate penned an open letter to the country, outlining why he thought it was important for players to continue using their voice for good.
“This is a special group. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves,” wrote Southgate.
The letter was published after his team was booed by a minority of fans for taking the knee — as a stand against racism — in warm-up matches ahead of the tournament.
The act of kneeling — made famous in 2016 by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick — was taken up by English Premier League footballers during the 2019/2020 season as an act of solidarity following the global outrage over the murder of George Floyd.
“It’s their [the players] duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate,” added Southgate.
Both the manager and players have remained unapologetic about using the gesture ahead of kick-offs at Euro 2020, despite criticism from some UK lawmakers of the ruling Conservative party.
“I have never believed that we should just stick to football,” continued Southgate in his letter.
“It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.”
There was, again, a small minority who booed the anthem on Tuesday but they were quickly, and emphatically, drowned out by the majority who applauded and cheered the gesture.
“I respect them a lot for doing it. For me, it just spreads a positive message in this country and it shows unity. Unity is key,” England fan Amoul Mangat, 27, told CNN Sport, as he made his way into the stadium on Tuesday.
This time last year, many of those fans flocking to Wembley ahead of kick-off on Tuesday were only just emerging from the first national lockdown in the UK.
An array of national and local restrictions have since come and gone. Many have lost loved ones to the pandemic. Many are likely to have experienced a degree of loneliness and a feeling of isolation over the last 15 months.
And although Covid-19 restrictions in and around the stadium probably dampened the atmosphere somewhat on Tuesday, supporters were beaming as they made their way down Wembley Way — the famous road leading to the stadium.
“It feels amazing to be here, just something to look forward to. The fact we are actually here is just a bit surreal,” England fan Andy McTadyen told CNN.
“It’s something to look forward to, just to have hope. It feels a privilege to be here,” added England fan Joanne West. “To be here amongst fans is just fantastic.”
And whether good or bad, England’s performances have been a welcome distraction from what’s been a tough reality for many.
“We’ve missed it big time. It’s really nice because we follow England everywhere so it has been a big hole over the last year,” said Karen Scully, who has traveled to multiple tournaments to watch England.
“Just to have something else to talk about apart from coronavirus is great.”
A good night at Wembley
Nonetheless, Southgate’s preparations for the match could not avoid Covid-19.
He was forced to leave Mason Mount and Ben Chillwell out of the squad for Tuesday’s match with both men self-isolating after coming into contact with Scotland’s Billy Gilmore — who tested positive for Covid-19 — though the disruption didn’t seem to bother England.
Sterling hit the post with a lobbed effort within minutes of the start to set the tone of the evening and went one better in the 12th minute, scoring with a header at the back post.
England captain Harry Kane, who has been struggling for form since the start of the tournament, should have doubled his side’s first-half lead but his shot was smartly saved by Tomas Vaclik.
If England went a little flat in the second period, the team’s ability to control the game, however, will have pleased Southgate.
Earlier on Tuesday there was more good news for England fans when the UK government announced that Wembley stadium in London will host more than 60,000 fans for the semifinals and final of Euro 2020.
Wembley — which will be at 75% capacity for the final three games of the tournament — will see the largest crowds assembled for a sporting event in the UK in more than 15 months.
The semis take place on July 6 and 7 with the final on July 11.
Aleks Klosok contributed to this report