The summer football didn’t come home, but really did
England didn’t win the World Cup in 2018. But Gareth Southgate and his England squad, the youngest at the competition in Russia, will come home winners.
They won a World Cup knock-out game for the first time since 2006. They won easily against Panama. They won comfortably in a quarter-final.
Better yet, they won a penalty shoot-out. In the World Cup. For the first time. Ever.
They could win a Golden Boot, too, but it won’t feel like much consolation.
For those of us who remember World Cup Italia ’90 and beyond, history weighs heavy on England.
Not anymore. This squad laughed in the faces of pressure and past. Because it’s not their past. It never was. This was an England team for the modern day, at last. Young, diverse and utterly effervescent, this is England.
The age of the meme threw in a curveball this summer. ‘Three Lions’, the 22-year-old England anthem by Baddiel, Skinner & The Lightning Seeds, soundtracked a revolution by an England that doesn’t remember it.
History loomed large outside the camp, not least because of Southgate’s own connection to UEFA EURO ’96. But, in Repino, the story was one of fun, adventure and possibility.
When the World Cup squad began to take shape there was a sense that this was to be a different England. Gone were the individual stars, giants of English club football. Gone, too, was the delusion of potential victory.
In its place, a team made up of players for the modern era. Southgate selected a squad dominated by Premier League players, not all of whom are guaranteed first team football for their clubs. They were trusted by their manager and they repaid him tenfold.
Kyle Walker, Raheem Sterling and some others had commanded enormous transfer fees but none carried the burden of history.
David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard might have been regarded as superior to the 2018 crop, but, well, so much of success is in the mind, isn’t it?
Expectations were adjusted in the most unenglish way. Reaching the quarter-final became the benchmark. All England supporters demanded was for the team to earn a nod of satisfaction and point to a more positive future.
Southgate and his colleagues, meanwhile, were quietly building the engine that powered England to and beyond a disarmingly routine quarter-final win against Sweden, almost without a splutter.
England changed in Russia. Blood and thunder gave way to psychology and meticulous planning. Thrust and bombast were abandoned in favour of tactical planning in extraordinary detail. Yet pride remained paramount, and, regardless of how it ended, it worked.
Southgate’s England became a beacon at home, too. The team’s triumphs were met with increasingly idiotic exuberance but England doesn’t belong to those people. It never has.
Football has a tendency to distance itself from its scumbags, scumbags it needs to own. If England’s supporters in Russia had disgraced themselves it would have been football’s problem and England’s problem.
But England supporters will be forgiven for asking whether the behaviour of louts and vandals on home soil really had anything to do with the football at all.
Indeed, that’s where the real beauty of this England team reveals itself. England, and England as a constituent part of the United Kingdom, is a nation in turmoil.
Two days before England’s semi-final defeat against Croatia the British cabinet crumbled around a division over Brexit. Division had become the UK’s great defining characteristic.
England was one part of a country tearing itself apart over the outcome of a referendum that was, long before the World Cup began, a victory only for corruption, technological propaganda and manipulation.
As a society we’ll never recover from that. The schism will never be bridged. But, for once, the England team represents not the England we are, but the England we should be.
It’ll never correct the wrongs that have been done to this country by rich liars, chancers and treasonous political criminals, but it gives us something.
It didn’t belong to Labour or Conservative. It wasn’t red or blue or yellow, and it sure as shit wasn’t purple. It was ours, it was of the people, it was all that’s good about England thrown into a training camp to conjure up some unexpected joy. And how it delivered.
Yes, this is England. Young and vibrant, full of life. Diverse in that beautiful, unassuming, why-the-fuck-wouldn’t-we-be way. Not shackled by the decisions and failures of its older generations.
The Football Association revealed the 2018 England World Cup squad in a piece of video content that dropped first on social media and pissed off all the right people. It was a good sign of what was to come.
It was an announcement video for kids, by kids. It was a loud, vivacious, unapologetic riot of youth, multiculturalism, diversity and, well, life. It was the real world. It was the England squad.
Southgate’s side ultimately fell late in their quest for an unlikely World Cup win but their success was vindication of a process of progressiveness, transparency, optimism and modernity.
No more, the chest-beating and tub-thumping calls to ‘Believe!’ for no reason in particular in a team anchored to the Group Stage by its own legacy of failure.
This was different. This was belief we could believe in, belief rooted in the knowledge that smart people were doing their jobs. If we as a football nation can harness this move in the right direction then this is just the beginning.
Football didn’t come home in 2018. But England did.
Chris Nee co-hosts an England podcast, The Stiles Council, which you can subscribe to now.