It is now 52 years of hurt. Except it isn’t. The last month has brought various emotions – hope, surprise, an unusual sense of being galvanised and pride – but hurt does not feel among them. The Southgate in the waistcoat may have emulated the wally with the brolly by losing to Croatia but, somewhere along the line, somehow, England inverted their past in the 2018 World Cup.
“The world’s most disappointing team”, to quote Time Magazine’s famous cover, may have disappointed, but only finally and forgivably. Everything about England in major tournaments had felt joyless for years: playing for them, supporting them, watching them. And then suddenly something joyous emerged.
England had been serial underachievers and then they overachieved: arguably for the first time since 1990. The sick man of world football suddenly appeared in rude health. For four weeks, England became Germany and Germany became England.
Without even counting the Confederations Cup, Germany had reached seven semi-finals since England’s last, in 1996. In the 22 subsequent years, Wales, Turkey, Greece, Czech Republic and even Russia’s serial failures had reached the last four of either a World Cup or a European Championships. Go further afield and, whether Chile or Costa Rica, Cameroon or Colombia, the global game was full of sides who had mustered historic achievements in the previous 22 years. Not England.
The reality is that there are 211 members of FIFA and only one can win the World Cup every four years. The rest, sooner or later, need something to savour and to celebrate; in England’s case, qualifying consistently and getting the odd group-stage victory efficiently scarcely constitutes that. They require moments that lodge in the imagination for the right reason, enjoyable examples of sport’s capacity to produce the unexpected. With Kieran Trippier’s free kick, Eric Dier’s spot kick, Harry Maguire’s slabheader, Harry Kane’s emphatic penalty-taking, Jordan Pickford’s assortment of superlative saves and Gareth Southgate conducting the crowd’s choruses, England were memory makers.
Gareth Southgate, Manager of England applauds fans after the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group G match between England and Belgium at Kaliningrad Stadium on June 28, 2018 in Kaliningrad, Russia
Image credit: Getty Images
Because, since Michael Owen’s astonishing goal against Argentina in 1998, what did they have to show for the previous two decades? David Beckham’s petulance and subsequent red card. Wayne Rooney’s petulance and subsequent red card. David Seaman getting lobbed by Ronaldinho and insisting it wasn’t his fault. A haunted Rob Green letting Clint Dempsey’s tame shot squirm under him. Joe Hart acting like Braveheart in the tunnel and a faint Hart whenever anyone shot. Paul Ince and David Batty missing penalties. Beckham and Darius Vassell missing penalties. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Jamie Carragher missing penalties. Ashley Young and Ashley Cole missing penalties. Phil Neville conceding penalties. Repeated embarrassments at the hands of clever technical midfielders, from Rui Costa to Andrea Pirlo, via Zinedine Zidane and Mesut Ozil. Romania. Algeria. Iceland.
Winning a penalty shootout marked a break with the past. So did going further, no matter how easy the path. So did the professional nature of the quarter-final win over Sweden. So did thrashing anyone, abject as Panama were. So did the forging of bonds with fans. The serenading of the thoughtful Southgate showed the change in relationship; eight years earlier, the arrogance of the entitled English players was epitomised by Rooney when he reacted to the abominable display against Algeria by saying: “Nice to see your home fans boo you. That's loyal supporters.”
In terms of the gulf between his reputation and other achievements and his displays on the global stage, Rooney ranks among the World Cup’s worst ever players. Collectively and, in many cases, individually, his peers underperformed, too.
But as the golden generation were replaced by the grounded generation came a shift in identity. Perhaps not since Owen Hargreaves in 2006 has an England player returned from a major tournament with his reputation dramatically enhanced. Now the symbolic quartet of Pickford, Maguire, Trippier and Jesse Lingard, none with more than a dozen caps when the squad was named, men with lower-league experience and loan spells on their CVs, all have, while Kane may come back with the Golden Boot. It is, as Gary Lineker can confirm, a defining feat.
Within their limitations, and without a Luka Modric, England confounded some expectations, with a decidedly different system and some unEnglish excellence in possession at the back. John Stones’ pass completion rate was 93.9 percent.
There were some other wonderfully anomalous statistics. Only Neymar has created more chances in Russia than Trippier, the right wing-back who has joined Sir Bobby Charlton and Lineker in the select group of England’s World Cup semi-final scorers. Stones has more World Cup goals than Rooney, Maguire more than Lampard. The Ashley who has played in most semi-finals is Young, not Cole.
We have seen these kind of revelations in other countries’ colours. Perhaps some of their shock successes were not actually that good and were just playing above themselves under pressure. Perhaps some of England’s are not actually outstanding footballers, either. That is a problem for another day. But perhaps someone else will follow in their footsteps within a framework where limited players can excel.
If the English way was for supposed greats to be overhyped and underwhelm, the class of 2018 proved the opposite of many of their predecessors. England will not win the World Cup and, while it was understandable some got excited as the draw opened up, they were never really likely to. But for a heady month, they stopped being the England we knew and disliked. And that, for now, should be enough.