The English football public weren’t always so enthralled by Gareth Southgate’s national team. In fact, when England confirmed their qualification for the 2018 World Cup was confirmed with a listless 1-0 over Slovenia, secured by a Harry Kane goal in stoppage time, one national newspaper ran with the headline: “To Russia with no love.”
While that might have overplayed the true sentiment of a national in typical tabloid fashion, it did illustrate how England had seemingly fallen out of love with the Three Lions. Not since 2006 had England made the quarter finals of a major tournament, with Roy Hodgson’s side suffering humiliation at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016. The Sam Allardyce debacle suggested not much would change.
From this, though, something magnificent has flourished. On Wednesday, England will face Croatia in the semi finals of the World Cup. The mentions of 1966, of Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst, of football coming home, are no longer so mythical. This is now a very real situation. It’s entirely feasible that by this time next week England could be World Cup winners again.
Videos of joyous celebration, of fans flooding the streets after the wins over Colombia and Sweden, of strangers singing on the tube together, have dominated social media over the past two weeks or so. Indeed, England’s success in Russia this summer has raised the spirits of an entire country. Not since the London Olympics have so many people across the land basked in such goodwill and jollification.
But this is down to more than just results. England has reconnected with its team. In Gareth Southgate, the nation has a figurehead to relate with and a story to buy into. Southgate himself was once the image of English sporting failure, missing the penalty kick that saw Terry Venebles’ side miss out on the final of Euro 96. He has experienced first hand the nature of the beast. That has helped his players tame it this time around.
Not only is this the youngest squad England has taken to a major tournament in a generation, it’s one of the most diverse, not just in terms of background, but in the way they have reached the top of the game. Many of the players have faced the sort of adversity not usually associated with the preened and pampered stars of the modern age.
We all know how Harry Kane had to drop down the leagues to get his start, but the same is also true of Jesse Lingard, Jordan Pickford, Dele Alli and a few others. Eric Dier, born in Cheltenham, actually came through the youth system at Sporting Lisbon before making the move to Spurs. Sure, they might be Premier League stars now, but they have succeeded in spite of the richest league in the world, not because of it.
Of course, some have found the urge to make real-world conclusions from this irresistible. There have been think pieces on how England winning the World Cup would show that Brexit can be a success, or from the other side of the spectrum, how such an achievement would prove the notion of Brexit was folly in the first place.
One should resist such urges, but it is certainly true that England’s run at this World Cup comes at a critical juncture in the country’s geopolitical history. Good news has been hard to come by in recent times, with Brexit and immigration and a crumbling NHS dominating the agenda. England has never been so divided in so many different ways.
Winning the World Cup won’t resolve this, of course. But there’s something to be said about the sight of strangers, arm in arm, greeting something, anything, with a smile. England might not win the World Cup, but something great has already been achieved.
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