When Evan Smith, a 54-year-old electrician and dad of two, watches the World Cup Final later today from his home in Leicester, he’ll wear his navy blue-and-white pin-striped waistcoat in honor of England football manager Gareth Southgate.
He purchased it when the British football team scraped into the semi-finals after an arduous game against Colombia that was eventually decided on penalties. Like most Brits watching the game, Smith didn’t think England would get through. No English football team in modern times had ever won a game through penalties. In fact, the team had the worst record of any major nation in the world when it came to penalty shootouts. In 2014, The Telegraph reported that in a major world tournament, England only had a 14 percent chance of winning if the game came down to a shootout.
Yet to everyone’s surprise, England won. Some attributed it to a uniquely talented team of young, diverse players that included midfielder Raheem Sterling, captain Harry Kane and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, whose saves were so extraordinary that he gained a cult following over the course of the tournament. But to Smith, his friends and a good percentage of the country, the team’s uncharacteristic success was mostly due to Southgate.
The 47-year-old former English midfielder, considered to be one of the best players of all-time at a national level and who played on the world stage in the 1990s (a period that many still consider the “golden age” of football), is now known as England’s hot dad, instantly recognizable in his trademark navy blue suit and perfectly tailored waistcoat. His dress is certainly a giant improvement over a standard football manager’s cheaply made suit, or on rainy days, dull parka jackets. The legacy of Southgate’s waistcoat is already such that British department store Marks & Spencer reportedly sold out of them last week, while online searches have more than doubled since the start of the World Cup. Meanwhile, in the run-up to England’s semi-final match against Croatia, British fans took to Twitter to post selfies of themselves wearing a Southgate-esque waistcoat.
“He’s a legend!” Smith exclaims when we talk about Southgate. (Smith and his friends all wore the same black-and-white striped waistcoat over their shorts and polo shirts when they watched the England-Croatia game at their local pub.) “It’s his manner, the way he carries himself — he’s confident, but he’s also humble. He won’t show off, and he won’t bring any arrogance on or off the pitch. He just gets on with it, even though he’s got the biggest job in the world. He wants to do his best by his players and by the country. That’s admirable. Because there aren’t a lot of men like that nowadays.”
This is as much the national narrative as it is Smith’s. “[Southgate] has created an environment in which the players feel relaxed and free to express themselves; he believes in them so they believe in him. And their relentless positivity, their obvious enjoyment of life — so different to toxic masculinity that is responsible for so many of the world’s ills — has transmitted to the wider public,” writes Daniel Harris in the New Statesman magazine. Similarly, Lou Stoppard, who referred to Southgate as “England’s waistcoat clad hope” in GQ, says of Southgate, “He’s brought emotional intelligence to the beautiful game — tenderness, compassion, empathy. Maybe that’s the root of the crush, a man who listens and understands, a man who isn’t afraid to care.”
Following England’s match against Colombia, British fans shared a photograph of Southgate, wrapped in his famous waistcoat, hugging Colombian midfielder Mateus Uribe after Uribe missed a penalty — an act of compassion rare in any level of professional sport. The image was particularly powerful considering that it mirrored Southgate’s own experiences at the 1996 European Championships, when the media blamed his missed penalty against Germany as the cause of England’s departure from the tournament — a memory that Southgate says still haunts him today. Then, when England narrowly lost to Croatia, another photo of Southgate went viral — this time, he was being consoled by his wife in an empty football stadium.
When Smith saw the latter photo, which one of his friends shared in a WhatsApp group, he says he was reminded of painful moments in his own life, like arguments he’d had with his wife or when his 8-year-old son had been admitted to the hospital for a life-threatening allergy. It was pain, he says, he had “ignored and tried to bury.” When he returned from work that evening, he immediately hugged his wife, kissed her on the cheek and “apologized for everything I had done wrong to her.”
“Southgate was always open in press conferences, refreshingly open and realistic, not talking in hyperbole and cliche, not talking as a ‘Proper Football Man,’ but as someone who knows his players, who understands pressure, who isn’t afraid of accepting (and introducing) new ways of interaction,” Sam Diss, an editor at Mundial, a U.K.-based quarterly football lifestyle magazine, writes over email. “He felt like a good bloke who knew what he was doing and was there to teach and protect his young side.”
Diss believes Southgate’s appeal might represent a wider cultural change in football that has resulted from players being seen as more human by the public, especially in the way that so many footballers have spoken out about their struggles with mental health and depression while competing on a global stage (e.g., Everton winger Aaron Lennon and former England goalkeeper Chris Kirkland). Former Liverpool goalkeeper Clarke Carlisle even set up his own charity to help footballers manage their mental health, describing it as an “endemic” in the sport.
“The England team can’t help but harken back to the Bad Old Days of Real Men who drink Real Ale and Who Have Really Strong Feelings About The Commonwealth,” Diss explains. “Being a manager isn’t a job that encourages emotion besides anger or vulnerability. That Southgate faced the very worst of the press after his penalty miss in 1996 means that he understands lows and how to overcome them: He talks openly about his own experiences, and you can’t help but feel like that’s a positive for others.”
Maybe most powerfully, all of this transcends sport. “I don’t watch football, and I had no intention of watching this World Cup,” Amira Khan, a 24-year-old female student based in London tells me over Twitter. “My dad has been trying to get me to watch it with him for years, but I wasn’t into it. I found it all a bit too macho. Gareth Southgate, however, did what my dad couldn’t!”
Khan first heard of Southgate on the news during a pre-World Cup press conference, and was “immediately taken aback with how humble he was. There wasn’t any ego. There wasn’t any technical mumbo jumbo. He just said he believed in his players, and he wanted to make the country proud. That was really admirable. Overall, he seemed like a sweet guy who you’d want to talk to about your problems. Because it’s obvious that he cares about his players and that he wants to do right by everyone. That’s what makes him a guy who would appeal to anyone regardless of who they are or where they’re from.”
Over the course of the tournament, Khan’s admiration for Southgate has become large enough that she’s participated in #garethsouthgatewould, a Twitter hashtag where users imagined Southgate paying for everyone’s round at the bar or earnestly doing chores so you could relax.
Even though England didn’t win the World Cup, it’s hard to imagine the Cult of Gareth Southgate evaporating anytime soon. Smith tells me that, like himself, there will be plenty of people in the U.K. proudly watching the France-Croatia final in their Southgate-inspired waistcoats. “It’s likely that the England team will come home and find that the whole nation is really proud of them,” Smith predicts.
Plus, Southgate’s influence already extends far beyond the pitch. Smith, for instance, is currently teaching his son how to play football, in the hopes that he’ll play for a recreational Sunday League team, or maybe come to a few Leicester City games with him. “Lots of dads try to force their sons to play. I was like that for a long time, too,” Smith says. “But I now know that patience and respect is the key — that goes no matter how old the player is.”