The contrast between England as a nation and its men’s football team couldn’t be any starker. England is right now a country low on self confidence after a mismanaged covid-19 response, and divided over a fractious, never-ending Brexit process. It is also being forced to re-evaluate its long legacy of inequality in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. The England football team, conversely, is right now everything that the country isn’t: a confident and decisive team of winners, a paragon of level-headed humility, and a shining light against racism and inequality.
This year’s Euros have elevated the idea of football as a team sport, rather than a game decided by flashes of individualistic brilliance, and two teams have typified this shift. The first has been Italy, a thrilling machine that plays technically perfect, high-speed, intricate football, and overwhelms its opponents with a manic high press, rapier sharp attacks and a sheer will to win. The other is England, playing a more considered passing game that’s predicated on patience and control. In their own ways, both Italy and England have already achieved a paradigm shift in international football by demonstrating what a well-drilled team of talented pros can achieve. Favourites like France, Portugal and Belgium, filled with international stars, have fallen by the wayside, and still England march on.
Gareth Soutgate’s team began the tournament with a quiet 1-0 win over Croatia followed by an underwhelming 0-0 draw with Scotland. Southgate’s innately cautious tactics and a lack of adventure were criticised, especially in light of the goal fests elsewhere in the tournament. Talismanic striker Harry Kane looked sluggish and lost, far too many sideways passes were played in midfield, and a squad brimming with young, exciting attacking talent seemed muzzled.
However, looked at from another perspective, England seemed to be pacing themselves perfectly, growing into the tournament and building a head of steam. This was underlined by the team’s defensive resilience. After all, both Croatia and Scotland were tricky games. England had lost to the former at the 2018 World Cup semi-final, and the historical rivalry with Scotland could have derailed England’s plans. Instead, England emerged from the two games with two clean sheets, 4 points and an important, confidence-boosting goal for Raheem Sterling. At 26, he is one of the seniors in the squad, and while he gained in confidence after a difficult season with Manchester City, England’s extremely talented but internationally unproven youngsters like Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham, Declan Rice and Jadon Sancho have come into their own. What was very clear by the time that England topped its group and advanced to the knockout rounds with a 1-0 win over the Czech Republic (courtesy of another goal from Sterling), that this England team was adept at shutting out the noise and concentrating on the job in hand; a trait often missing from England sides in international tournaments.
England’s round of 16 knockout match against Germany provided a further test of its credentials. Germany had had a patchy tournament till that point, but still boasted of a glittering team bristling with World Cup winners and multiple Champions League winners. Historically, England vs Germany has been a rivalry in name only. England had won just two of their past 10 competitive matches against Germany going into the Euros, and had never beaten them at an international tournament since the 1966 World Cup final. Such has been the overwhelming media-driven narrative of a rivalry that, even a supremely talented England team at the 2010 World Cup couldn’t cope with the pressure and succumbed to a 4-1 loss to the Germans.
However, the current England team is a different beast. Unencumbered with nationalistic tribalism of the past, and unconcerned by the World War II-referencing jingoism of a section of the fans, the young English players went into the game with a careful plan and stuck to it. Instead of getting cowed by the reputation of the likes of Tony Kroos or Thomas Müller or Leon Goretzka, England excelled in midfield and defence, keeping the German attack at an arm’s length for all of 75 minutes.
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The sense was that with England’s attacking talent, chances would come. And they did. First Raheem Sterling finished off a flowing move that he started in midfield. One touch passes at speed from Sterling to Kane to Jack Grealish to Luke Shaw opened up the German defence. And Sterling was there to apply the coup de grâce to Shaw’s cross. A few minutes later, after another flowing move, Grealish crossed from the right and Kane headed home. No fuss, job done.
In the quarter-final match against Ukraine, England’s shackles came off. Playing a more front-footed attacking game against limited opponents, England scored four goals in just over an hour, and then calmly saw the game out. Their semi-final game against Denmark will be a tighter one to call. For one, the Danes are a good footballing side. And following midfielder Christian Eriksen’s near-death experience in Denmark’s opening Euro game, the squad has been soaring on an intensely emotional ballast of their own. But with Kane finally hitting a rich vein of goalscoring form and Sterling in menacing mood, England are favourites to reach the final.
Even beyond football, England have been pitch perfect. The players continue to take the knee before every game to make clear their stance against racism (only Portugal, Belgium and Germany have done the same). Sterling, in particular, has been bombarded with racist social media abuse through the tournament. But he has, with the help of his teammates, continued to provide a stinging riposte to racist English and other European football fans by being focused and committed to win the tournament, and do the right thing while doing so.