It looked like a perfectly innocent post-match tweet, the kind sent by soccer players virtually every week.
“Enjoyable week playing for my country,” Harry Maguire posted on Twitter early Wednesday, complete with emojis of a Union Flag and a heart and a picture of him kicking a ball.
Except this one was loaded.
The previous night, Maguire was the target of jeers and abuse from a section of England fans before and during the team’s 3-0 win over the Ivory Coast in a friendly at Wembley Stadium.
When his name was read out in the pre-match team lineup. When he touched the ball.
Why, though? After all, he has been a mostly reliable presence at the heart of England’s defense for a while now. He helped England to reach the European Championship final last year, at Wembley. He was even named in the team of the tournament, placing him alongside many of the best players on the continent.
Quite simply, it’s because of something entirely different — his performances for Manchester United.
“Ludicrous,” was the post-match reaction of England coach Gareth Southgate to the boos.
Then, one by one, Maguire’s England teammates rallied behind the center back in a series of tweets.
“Total embarrassment,” Declan Rice wrote, adding: “Absolute nonsense now it’s becoming. Back your own players. Especially with a major tournament coming up.”
Harry Kane, England’s captain, wrote: “We’ve worked hard to rebuild our connection with England fans in the last few years so to hear Harry Maguire booed at Wembley before kickoff was just not right.”
Perhaps the most significant backing of Maguire came from Jordan Henderson.
“I can’t get my head around what happened at Wembley tonight,” the midfielder wrote. “To be booed at his home stadium, for no reason. What have we become?”
Henderson’s intervention was telling because he is captain of Liverpool, the fierce and historic rival of Maguire’s Man United team.
It wasn’t so long ago — indeed, when Southgate used to play for England — that club rivalries such as that between United and Liverpool used to spill over into the national team. There are stories of players of the respective clubs not sitting with each other at England squad meet-ups.
“We had a generation that was nicknamed the ‘Golden Generation’ of players, where expectations were huge for us as a national team to go out there and win something,” Rio Ferdinand said in 2017. “That there is probably what held us back. Not being able to separate our club ties to international ties.”
That’s clearly not the case with Southgate’s England. The cliques are gone inside the squad.
They aren’t gone from the stands, though. And for Southgate, that’s a big concern heading to the World Cup in Qatar.
“We’re either all in this together or we are not,” Southgate said. “And don’t think for one minute the other players won’t be looking at that, thinking, ‘That could be me one day.’
“And that’s been one of the problems of playing for England. Players have thought, ‘Hmm, do I want to go?’ Because when it turns a little bit difficult, then the crowd are going to turn on me.”
He listed England players who have been targeted by abuse from their own fans through the years — John Barnes in the 1990s, Ashley Cole about 15-20 years ago, and more recently Raheem Sterling.
“We need Harry Maguire playing well if we’re going to have a chance of doing well (in Qatar),” Southgate said. “Because we’re not going to win a World Cup with a load of players that have got three or four caps.”
Maguire’s typically strong displays for England over the last couple of years have come amid a tough time personally for him. His performances for United haven’t justified its outlay of 80 million pounds ($97 million) to sign him from Leicester in 2019, especially this season as the team struggles to qualify for the Champions League.
There was the high-profile incident in August 2020 when Maguire was convicted and handed a suspended 21-month sentence by a Greek court following charges of assaulting a police officer and attempted bribery. He was granted a retrial after lodging a successful appeal.
More recently, Maguire has recounted how his father had injured ribs and trouble breathing after being caught up in the violence at the Euro 2020 final at Wembley.
Southgate was at pains to say there were England fans who sang Maguire’s name Tuesday in an attempt to counteract the jeers. But the coach could not hide his bewilderment, even anger, at what he saw as a potential reopening of old wounds when it comes to the connection between fans and the England team.
Maguire will always be a target for some because of his United connections.
England just has to hope it doesn’t go on to affect his performances for his country at a time when winning the World Cup is a realistic ambition.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80