England have the opportunity to go all the way in Russia, but can they really bring football home?
At around 10pm on the eve of England’s last World Cup Semi Final their star player was thrashing out a game of tennis with some American tourists. Bobby Robson, the England manager at the time, heard the commotion and came rushing over screaming “GAZZA!” He approached the tourists, “Do you know who he is? He’s got the most important game of his life tomorrow!” but they had no idea who he was or that for the past hour they’d been playing tennis with England’s most gifted footballer, just 30 hours or so before he was due to take on West Germany in the World Cup Semi Final.
“I can’t believe you did that” Robson told him the following morning “you know you’re playing against Matthaüs today? He’s the best midfield player in the world!” But Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne, who was found earlier that tournament leaning out of his hotel room window throwing bars of soap at chickens, looked him square in the eye and said “Nar, I am”.
Perhaps it’s fitting then, that on the eve of their own World Cup Semi Final, the 2018 England squad spent a light-hearted training session throwing a rubber chicken around in preparation for their clash with Luka Modrić’s Croatia on Wednesday evening. Whether the Gazza-chicken allusion was intentional or not, for the first time since that night in Turin 28 years ago, England are on the brink of a World Cup Final.
But can they do it? Like really do it?
They can do it
There are plenty of reasons why England can do it. The squad is young and fearless, Harry Kane is the competition’s on-form striker, and the total letters of each quarter final fixture add up to 13, the number of characters needed to spell out “It’s coming home”.
But really, Gareth Southgate has truly whipped the nation up into a footballing frenzy with his masterful man-management (sticking by Sterling), tactical nouse (purposefully losing to Belgium), and devastating style (the waistcoat).
Now, he leads an England side into the Semi Final emboldened by a penalty shoot-out win, (the first ever by England at a World Cup) and a stress-free victory over Sweden, against a Croatian team who’ve hardly set the tournament alight, and whose previous two matches were both 120-minute slogs.
But England’s improvements don’t stop at in-game performance. Where once the pressure of England World Cup camps had nowhere to escape, in Russia players have the outlet of social media, allowing them to largely bypass traditional tabloid media filters and connect with fans directly. See the unicorn situation and Jesse Lingard’s tear-jerking embrace with his mum for reference.
The antics of Gazza and co at previous tournaments were used to construct narratives against England squads gone by; Did Terry Venables really let his players drink during Euro 96? Was John Barnes’ room actually “the bar”? Did Fabio Capello force his team to watch highlight reels of his glory days at Juventus in total silence? The fan’s view of the player’s day-to-day camp shenanigans is no longer shrouded in these dark mysteries. ‘The press’ are still present, but communication is more more direct now.
Some players even live stream straight from the pitch after the final whistle, a development that would simple be unthinkable at past tournaments, including as recent as 2014. A quick follow of the central group of England players, as well as the official England Instagram account, provides more than enough evidence of a content, relaxed, and professional squad, brimming with energy and excitement.
This could be their year.
The impossible job
This England side have far surpassed expectations in this tournament already and with some incredible teams armed with lethal talent still left in the competition, it could very feasibly be game over for Gareth come Wednesday evening.
Belgium who play France in their Semi Final, boast the striking talent of Romelu Lukaku, hot on the tail of Kane for the golden boot with four goals. Supplying him from midfield are the likes of Eden Hazard, whose trickery and fast feet made Neymar look mediocre during Belgium’s meeting with Brazil in the quarters, and the untouchable Kevin De Bruyne, whose passing range is unrivalled in the modern game.
In Courtois Belgium have one of the world’s best goalkeepers and in Vincent Kompany one of the game’s most commanding centre-backs. They’ll be a tough nut to crack even for the French who are blessed the attacking talents of Antoine Griezmann, arguably one of the tournament’s stand-out players, and the mighty Pogba whose gallops from midfield are enough to strike fear into any opposition.
England can only start to worry about France or Belgium however provided they beat an impressive Croatian side who’ve conceded very few goals in this World Cup and whose captain, Luka Modrić has been in fine form. Although Croatia’s last two games went the distance, they’ll take confidence from holding their nerve when it mattered, winning two penalty shout-outs.
Few expected England to progress this far, perhaps allowing them to perform with a freedom and fearlessness past squads were unable to. The so called ‘Golden Generation’ buckled under pressure many times. But England are playing well, and the weight of expectation is on them now to go all the way.
They can’t chicken out this time