Perhaps it’s the waistcoat and tie. Somewhere, in our subconscious minds, Gareth Southgate reminds us all of a really good best man. One who takes his responsibilities seriously, who will ignore the lads in order to find a chair for Great Auntie Eileen, and her hip, whose speech will be tender and thoughtful and without allusion to That Trip To Faliraki. The waistcoat looks as though it will have an inside pocket, with a few floating fivers in order to ensure that bar staff and properly tipped. It will have another pocket, for a hanky. Gareth Southgate gives the impression that he might be the only man in the United Kingdom under 50 who still carries a proper hanky.
Gareth Southgate has a quiet dignity, a lack of flash and a sense of gruff, unshowy warmth. It has made millions of men and women fall in love with him. This is unexpected. Football is inherently theatrical, and most of the heroes and heartthrobs that the game produces have caught our attention by embracing drama. We still talk about Diego Maradona and his 1986 “hand of God” World Cup victory goal for Argentina, and Eric Cantona, the footballer whose philosophy is so grandiose that it inspired a 2009 Ken Loach film, Looking For Eric. We’re obsessed with the Beckhams and the Rooneys, the footballers with dynasties, whose personal lives are played out in public to an audience that finds them every bit as absorbing as their professional ones. In comparison, Gareth Southgate’s Wikipedia entry has a single, understated line under Personal Life. “Southgate attended Hazelwick School in Crawley, West Sussex. Southgate is married to Alison; the couple have two children.”
This is a very grown up crush. Perhaps 10 years ago, when we were all at WAG fever pitch and getting together a house deposit seemed less impossible and important than getting hold of a Chanel bag, Southgate would have been overlooked. It was a time when the social side of football was associated with bodycon and bottle service, and some of us secretly dreamed of meeting a man who earned billions of pounds a week and could fly us to Mauritius at a moment’s notice. Now that we live in a world of Tinder-flavoured toxic masculinity, we simply dream of meeting a man who looks as though he might quietly roll up his sleeves, get under the sink and sort out a dripping tap without being asked.
In a way, maybe it should bother us that our bar for a dream man is so… average. In the aftermath of the #metoo movement, when the President of the United Stated has a well-documented history of treating women in questionably, and when a male Tory MP is prepared to block a bill to make upskirt photography illegal, a good man is hard to find. Are we feeling so badly let down and disappointed by men that Southgate has become a sex god simply because he seems kind? Or is there more to it than that?
Southgate is demonstrably good at his job and being quietly and confidently capable is extremely hot. A man who can lead the England team to the quarter finals is almost certainly a man who can hail a black cab on the first try, while everyone else is triggering an Uber surge. A man who always has a clean, ironed shirt, and is never found swearing at the tumble dryer at 8.25 on a Monday morning. But I think it’s Southgate’s kindness and compassion that have made us fall for him so hard. On Tuesday night, when most of us were punching the air and shrieking about things coming home, Southgate was hugging the Columbian goal keeper David Ospina tightly, caring about neither international rivalry nor the fact that Ospina had been sweating hard for ninety minutes. I don’t think I even want children, but when I saw that picture I briefly thought it would be quite nice to have them with Gareth Southgate, because he seems sweet and strong enough to absorb their greatest pains and most crushing disappointments.
Our collective crushes are reliable barometers of where we are as a society. If we think someone is hot, we can use their qualities and attributes as a way of taking the national temperature and working out what, and who, we need the most. Let’s look back to 2012. We were in the EU, Obama was in the White House, all of the sport had come home, because of the Olympics, and we’d just watched a giant celebratory ballet about the majesty of the NHS. In 2012, we all fancied Harry Styles. Impish, cheeky, youthful, smooth skinned Harry was the sort of crush we could afford, back then. Life was less alarming, we could be optimistic about the future, and we thought about nuclear war less than once a week. Our love for Harry was a manifestation of our attitudes in a more laid back time.
Now, we live in a terrifying dystopia, and every headline makes us wonder how many days we have left before everything descends into Mad Max times. We want someone solid and strong, someone who will hold us when we weep and never tell us that we’re making a fuss about nothing, and someone who definitely wouldn’t spend the council tax money on a Playstation. And that’s why the whole country is in love with Gareth Southgate.