Now, I was indeed a fan of the World Cup in Russia and well, you really have to be when you’re inundated with daily reminders that football is supposedly ‘coming home’. England usually don’t stand a chance when it comes to continental competitions, such as the World Cup, but, for this one just gone, a few things seemed different.
The appointment of former England centre-half Gareth Southgate, previously manager of the Under-21s, did seem a tad inspired at first. A seasoned international with skill managing at lower levels, Southgate appeared comfortable within his position. As the World Cup drew nearer, patriotic fever kicked in and all neighbourhoods could be heard blaring out ‘Three Lions’ by the Lightning Seeds, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner a good few weeks before the World Cup was due to begin. No less, on the night of the penalty shootout victory against Colombia, at eleven o’clock at night, I could hear it blaring from two houses down from my own. After the whitewash of a qualification process, there’s always that smidgen of hope that grows at a rapid rate. However, beating the likes of Lithuania and San Marino are not really representative of a World Cup style performance.
When the group stage draw came and England drew Belgium, Tunisia and Panama, hopes were much more contagious and indeed higher. The ties with Tunisia and Panama were supposedly guaranteed wins, but with the way football is, complacency tends to kick in and players lose focus and sight of the end goal – a win and three points in the group stage. Personally speaking, I had my doubts about how well England would do; I didn’t write us off immediately, but I didn’t really let the patriotism get the better of me. Belgium are a good side, featuring the likes of world superstars such as Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois and so, in my eyes, there wasn’t much hope on that front. With regards to both Tunisia and Panama, they were indeed underdogs by a country mile. This underdog status is what drives certain teams to prove themselves against the larger oppositions in stature. With these two minnows by comparison to England and Belgium, they could have proven to be a slight threat, especially with the looming prospect of complacency.
However, the group stages came and England did better than I thought. The first performance against Tunisia seemed especially shaky. For one thing, it seemed that my fears regarding haunting complacency were coming true. England struck first with a goal from Harry Kane and then the pressure got to Kyle Walker and England gave away a penalty. “Here we go again!” I exclaimed as Pickford conceded and we were back to level-pegging. It took England until stoppage time to score, again through Harry Kane, and restore some hope. Panama were up next, but to my surprise, they were brushed aside with a 6-1 thrashing. Maybe there was a little more hope? With qualification secured, the prospect of Belgium loomed. Belgium were playing a second-string side with players such as Michy Batshuayi and Adnan Januzaj getting the first-team nod. To be fair, the latter did score a rather well-worked goal with a curling effort into the top-left corner. It would prove to be the only goal of the game. England, despite the loss, had secured qualification from the group stages. This was better than my prediction and anything else was a bonus.
The knockout rounds loomed and first to face Southgate’s men was Colombia. Colombia are a good side, but with star player James Rodriguez out on the sidelines, they were weakened severely. England had held a 1-0 lead for the majority of the game but a Yerry Mina header in the dying embers put England back to square one. Extra time solved no problems and penalties had to solve the issue. Before this, England had never won a penalty shootout and did not want to suffer the ignominy of being knocked out of the World Cup by a depleted Colombia side. After much tension and some good saves from Jordan Pickford, the time came for Eric Dier to take his penalty. If Dier scored, England would win and go on to face Sweden in the Quarter Finals – arguably a much easier opponent. Dier stepped up, scored, and the crowds went wild. ‘Three Lions’ could be heard blaring out across the country once again. England were through to the Quarter Finals to face Sweden. Sweden proved little challenge and England ran out 2-0 winners with goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli.
The Semi Finals came around and all fans were hopeful of a victory against Croatia as on paper, England seemed the better side. I had my doubts with Croatia’s stock of players such as Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic, as well as their midfield maestro Luka Modric. England did indeed take the early lead with a curling free-kick effort from full-back Kieran Trippier, but that would prove to be the only England goal scored in that Semi-Final. Croatia, after extra time, ran out 2-1 winners and the dream was over. It wasn’t coming home after all. Granted, Southgate had done very well, but there were other shock results that made England’s path easier, such as South Korea’s unlikely victory over holders Germany. England had also steered clear of some of the big players like Spain which wouldn’t have ended well with the stock of the Spanish team.
So, in the end, football didn’t ‘come home’ that time for the senior team, but it did ‘come home’ for the youth sides a couple of years prior. So, with this next cohort of England prospects such as Reiss Nelson and Jadon Sancho proving starlets in the Bundesliga, could England win at other tournaments in the future? I’m a big fan of giving youth a chance, but with the current crop of players, it seems to be the case that by the time the next tournament comes around in 2020, there’ll be a lack of fully-fledged international experience as some players will have since retired or declined as they reach that magic age of 30 or so. Some of the younger players such as Angel Gomes may be given a chance, but it won’t be until many years down the line until we see them playing for the senior team. Therefore, the prospect of football ever ‘coming home’ is not too far away, but there is still work to be done but who knows? 2020 may be our year.