It’s coming home. Albeit quite slowly, and probably via a corner. On a muggy day by the banks of the Volga River, England took another unflinching step into the weird fantasy universe they seem to have created for us. A universe where millennial republicans unironically belt out ‘God Save the Queen’ in pubs. Where Kieran Trippier is a legitimate shoo-in for the Fifa team of the tournament. Where a baking Saturday sun beats down on deserted, zombified high streets. Where reaching a World Cup semi-final feels like the most natural thing in the world.
As England played out the final minutes here, against a Sweden side befuddled and becalmed by a performance of extreme and worldly competence, an unfamiliar sensation began to take shape in the lowlands of our guts. You might call it, for want of a better word, fun. The Colombia game was too tense by far to be enjoyable; Harry Kane’s winning goal against Tunisia too sudden and fleeting; the trouncing of Panama too easy and gratuitous. But a well-earned stroll into the last four against an opponent who had promised only an afternoon of pain? Yes: this one, we could savour.
You could tell England’s players were enjoying it, too. Jesse Lingard rolled his foot over the ball as if he was going to take it home later. Jordan Henderson wore a look of pure, liquid satisfaction as he came off for Eric Dier with five minutes remaining. Even the stern, businesslike Gareth Southgate allowed himself a brief, broad smile at full-time before returning to his default Caring, Serious Face: making sure his substitutes were all happy, commiserating with the Swedes, picking up his litter, renewing his Water Aid direct debit, that sort of thing.
But then, there was really nothing new in any of this. You could see it before kick-off, too: Lingard and John Stones laughing and joking in the tunnel as they waited to go out. Jordan Pickford, standing there with a grin as wide as the Volga, the big stupid gurn of a guy who has somehow managed to press the fast forward button on life, and found himself walking out to play for England in a World Cup quarter-final.
Ever since England arrived in Russia, they have given off the unmistakable whiff of a team enjoying the greatest lads’ holiday of their lives. Albeit, at times, a slightly surreal holiday in which alcohol is strictly restricted, Colombians charge at them with studs and shoulders and they are occasionally forced to play darts with middle-aged journalists. Most of the time, however, it’s been pretty standard Club 20-18 fare: a few selfies, a bit of fooling around, a bit of football, and memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.
Has there ever been an England team that has ever made the job of playing for England seem less like a job? You almost wanted to channel Desmond Lynam during the France 1998 World Cup. Shouldn’t they be working?
Of course, Sweden were determined to see to that. And for much of the goalless first half-hour, it did feel a bit like hard work for England, who struggled to impose themselves on the game against a Sweden team with great spatial intelligence and a lust for the 50-50 challenge. Slipping in between the tightly-packed lines of their defence and midfield was like trying to find space in a double cheeseburger.
Just when the game was stagnating to the point where it felt it might have to be delivered by caesarean section, along came Harry Maguire, or more specifically: along came Harry Maguire’s head. Maguire’s head really has an identity and a carriage all of its own: like a 3-wood, or one of Jupiter’s moons, or an Elgin Marble, or something similarly substantial and unyielding. It really is a Large Hadron Collider of a head, a head for which hair is really just a sort of disguise, protecting the general public from the full, terrifying scale of that granite cranium. Rumours that the Earth has actually between revolving around Maguire’s head this whole time remain, according to the majority of astronomical consensus, purely conjecture.
Just in front of the goal line, you could see Dele Alli cowering in terror: not in fear that he would get in the way of the header and prevent a goal, but that the ball would hit him, and he would be swept into the net with the power of a neutron blast. But he was all right, and so were England. On the touchline, Southgate allowed himself a triumphant raise of the fists, before returning to the injured swan he was trying to nurse back to full health on the bench.
It had been a tense half-hour, the sort of period that still - through muscle memory if nothing else - tends to bring the nation’s collective finger closer to the panic button. Already you could begin to sense the shrill voices of dissent: quicken it up, bring Marcus Rashford on, bin Raheem Sterling immediately, take off Dele and replace him with one of those It’s Coming Home memes for the second half. But as the game progressed, and England discovered that Sweden had all the cutting edge of an Ikea meatball, they began to grow in confidence.
The game remained 1-0 at half-time courtesy of the two goalkeepers. First Robin Olsen read Sterling’s intentions like one of his Players’ Tribune articles, and tipped the ball wide from a one-on-one chance. Then Pickford saved magnificently from Marcus Berg with the same left hand he had used to win the penalty shoot-out against Colombia on Tuesday: a left hand that through some catastrophic medical condition, seems to have swollen to alarming size in recent weeks, to the extent to which it now covers most of one side of the goal. Pickford would go on to make a similarly adept save with his right hand in the second half, offering worrying evidence that the condition might be spreading. One trait that remains unchanged, happily, is his habit of making a brilliant save and then charging around his penalty area offering out anyone who thinks he might be hard enough.
It wasn’t quite perfect, of course, even after Dele’s second-half goal made the game safe. Sterling’s profligacy remains a concern, and Southgate probably wishes, in the intervals in between his shifts manning phones for the Samaritans, that Pickford wasn’t quite so busy. But England are in a World Cup semi-final, their first in the men's game since Southgate himself was a spotty youth trying to break into the Crystal Palace first-team, and somehow none of that feels as pressing as it should.
For England have found themselves on their travels. The pre-tournament talk about the weakness of this squad was always a touch overdone - their starting XI here, after all, was drawn entirely from the top half of the Premier League - but somehow this group of unheralded players has discovered depths it didn’t know it had, dipped into reserves of energy and poise that until this summer had remained entirely theoretical. Whatever happens between now and July 15, English football will emerge from this World Cup fundamentally changed for the better: its culture rebooted, its psyche remapped. Most importantly of all, like the very best mates’ holidays: it’s been an absolute blast.
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