England could escape suffocating past with vibrant football

Russia is often accused of fiddling with the news, but this really happened. England were 5-0 up at half-time in a World Cup match and were able to withdraw their captain and talisman, Harry Kane, who had already reached his hat-trick in a game his team had already won. These facts have been verified.

Back home, a nation accustomed to World Cup inquests and zero-fun games were supping the Ambrosia of a perfect summer Sunday. Nobody was asking why-oh-why? No-one stared at charred barbecue meat morosely.

In a city where the Soviet Union exiled dissidents, England were escaping a suffocating past. It was only Panama, a team of penalty-box wrestlers who were extraordinarily bad, but still, it was that weird thing called fun.

“It’s lovely we could give people watching at home goals to celebrate,” Gareth Southgate said. “I think they can see what we’re trying to do, and the way we’re trying to play, and enjoying our football. You don’t get many opportunities to play like that in a game for England.” Southgate should know. He has seen all sorts of national breakdowns.

As a manager, though, rather than an entertainments officer, he says England’s first victory in Russia gave him greater pleasure. He said: “Yes, it’s strange because I enjoyed the win against Tunisia more because of the tension in it and the fact you get over the line when you’re really under pressure is very special.

‘For me, just before half-time, the game was done today. So it was a very strange feeling watching the second half, encouraging the boys to stay professional and continue being so ruthless.”

Things that cannot happen in English football happened in English football – where even the heat failed in its usual task of reducing an England side to soggy dishcloths. Southgate’s team seemed unperturbed by the clamminess.
Nor could an injured shoulder from a fall in the forest stop the manager punching the air. In past tournaments England would have drawn their first two Group G games and Southgate been lambasted for jogging in the woods without considering the risks. Obituarists would have noted it down as the moment it all began collapsing.

So far, all the usual curses have been lifted from English backs. The photographed team-sheet controversy, which ignited a war on the press by some supporters, ended up as a source of mirth, with people in the England camp not bothered by it and Southgate picking a different team anyway – with Raheem Sterling still up front, not Marcus Rashford.

A 6-1 win that secured England’s qualification for the round of 16 felt like a reward for Southgate’s grown-up approach – but mostly his fine coaching. Since taking over, Southgate has moved the side on from a sometimes ponderous passing game to more dynamic play, built around Harry Kane and two thrusting midfielders in the No 8 position.

Watching Kane trot off after 63 minutes was surreal for any English observer. Usually, the England No 9 stays out there, toiling to rescue the team. The camera picks out his agonies and his strivings. Kane, on the other hand, had completed his work with a 62-minute hat-trick, and could be rested for the bigger trials ahead. Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Michael Owen and the rest never knew such luxury.

Kane struck two penalties, in the 22nd and 45th minutes, then redirected a Ruben Loftus-Cheek shot with his heel, a minute before Jamie Vardy replaced him.

“I was pleased the captain got his hat-trick because he had the hump less when I brought him off,” Southgate said. To anyone returning from outer space to read this, it would sound like fiction. He said what?

Equally bizarre was the debate that broke out over whether England should stop scoring, for their own good. The moral, disciplinary (red and yellow cards) and selectorial complications around the final group game against Belgium in Kaliningrad are unchartered territory. They are pretty odd for the World Cup generally, but extremely strange for England, who have not won a single knock-out game since Ecuador in 2006, and prevailed in only six since 1966.

With this history, England can hardly flounce round Russia picking and choosing their opponents. But stage one of their mission is complete: to expel fear from the camp, engage with fans and media, find a positive style of play, seize the day, and watch the rest of the tournament with a view to really joining in, rather than festering on the margins.

It was just England’s luck to shine like this at a tournament to which many of their fans have said ‘no thanks’. Many travelling Stoics who saw the blow-out in Bloemfontein (2010) and the no-show in Nice (2016) are now confined to their televisions back home. Many will be on websites trying to get out there, because England are guaranteed at least two more fixtures. Russia must sense it, because there were several booming renditions of “Russ-ee-yah” from locals in the 43,319 crowd.

After England’s biggest World Cup win, Southgate can consider resting and rotation. Four years ago in Brazil, England were eliminated eight days after the first ball was kicked. Now, John Stones has scored more goals in World Cup finals than Wayne Rooney. It guarantees nothing, except that England now know what pleasure looks like. You really did see what you think you saw.

Ben Fox

Author: Ben Fox

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