It may sound like an attempt to get the excuses in early, but it probably doesn’t matter whether England win this evening.
In the obvious sense – yes – of course it matters. It’s a World Cup semi-final and, in this country at least, history teaches us that they don’t come around very often. But in terms of this tournament’s function, and what this England team’s mission was during its running, it’s almost inconsequential. What needed to happen this summer has already been achieved.
When we look back on 2018, many years from now, hopefully we’ll remember this as a year when people re-engaged with their national team. As many articles have noted, that may be an illusion created by relativity. England have been good at a time when everything else has been so bad; these games have offered a distraction from more pressing and obvious issues.
Fair as that may be, there has clearly been something about this England team. Importantly, that’s a something which seems permanent. They aren’t just a side who happen to be competent today, but one who also appear to stand a chance of being capable tomorrow. And the day after that.
The roots of that suspected permanence stand scrutiny. England’s various age-group performances last summer are a clear reason for enthusiasm and the nation has a glut of developing talent which, whisper it, will be the envy of Europe within a few years. More importantly though, there is now evidence to suggest that the penny has dropped with the Football Association – that lessons from the past have finally been learnt, and that the path forward is well-lit in their mind.
Gareth Southgate’s appointment is testament to that. Southgate is not an era-defining coach and neither is someone at risk of reinventing the game. He’s nobody’s idea of an ideologue. What he is, however, is someone who suits the job he’s in – not an expensive import or a club manager procured at tremendous cost, but somebody with full comprehension of the infrastructure around him and an appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of the English player. Dan Ashworth is the architect of the England DNA initiative, but Southgate – who has been an FA employee for over seven years – has certainly been part of its construction.
The result is confidence. Faith, even. The country will continue – rightly – to treat this tournament as a novelty, but when the dust settles around it the sporting public might reflect that it hasn’t necessarily been a freak occurrence. Yes, England have certainly benefitted from being in the softer side of the draw and part of their progress has depended on good fortune, but it has seemed throughout like the final destination on this journey might not necessarily be in Russia.
Should Croatia win this evening – and they’re talented, so they might well do – that needn’t necessarily be the end. There are no key players retiring, no plans for Southgate or anyone important at The FA to move on. There is no reason why this shouldn’t happen again. In two years’ time, England will enter a European Championship with a more talented group of players. Two years on from that, they’ll head to Qatar endowed with a squad which should be better still.
That’s a critical part of this re-engagement. The toxicity around England was created by many factors, but first among all of them was that pervasive hopelessness – this sense that our football was so flawed and our way of thinking was so archaic that expectation itself was ultimately futile. The distance which developed between the players the public owed much to ego, underachievement and an aggravating sense of entitlement, but much of that would have been forgiven if the actual experience of watching those teams had been more gratifying.
It wasn’t, of course. In fact, over the years it grew steadily worse. More troublingly, England fell away while at the same time offering no suggestion that they may one day climb back. There was no logical reason to believe in recovery, so how could the public have been expected to remain invested?
Within that context, the magnitude of this summer can be seen for what it is. This, at last, is a team which has done its country proud. More importantly, it’s a manifestation of something which isn’t likely to die with the final whistle tonight.
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