For an entire generation of England fans, the victory over Colombia on Tuesday night represented the greatest tournament moment since 1996. The 5-1 in Germany was unquestionably huge but Gareth Southgate presiding over a win on penalties at a World Cup felt epochal and a national trauma seemed to be put to bed. “It’s coming home”, a refrain which felt faintly ironic at the start of the tournament is now being sung with genuine conviction. England seemed down and out when their opponents levelled the score deep into injury time but, after a brief wobble, Southgate’s side showed real character and could even have won it in the second half of extra time.
One significant aspect of the win was the fact that there is now no doubt that the England manager did the right thing in resting players for the final group game against Belgium. Rather than a date with Brazil in the quarter final, England will take on Sweden on Saturday afternoon and, should they triumph, a date with Russia or Croatia will lie in store. Clearly no England match should be considered a formality and they could easily slip up on the weekend but it is undeniable that this team is on the “easier” side of the draw.
It is easy to be cynical but the fact that Southgate’s team are two winnable matches away from a first World Cup final on foreign soil is astonishing.
This is a young, inexperienced side and the general feeling was that they would be unlikely to make waves at this tournament. Instead, they have played some fluent, progressive football and displayed the kind of character all too rarely exhibited by the so-called “golden generation”. At this moment in time, anything less than an appearance in the final would feel like something of a disappointment, the kind of suggestion that would have been laughable a few weeks ago.
The impact this has had already cannot be underestimated. Videos of spontaneous singing in the streets and raucous reactions at public screenings have been circled far and wide, the country desperate to unite over a likeable football team managed by someone who seems to be a genuinely decent man. The fact that Southgate was responsible for arguably the most infamous penalty miss in the history of the national team meant he left nothing to chance and focused on attempting to instil belief in his players. Somewhat astonishingly, it worked.
England has rarely felt as divided as it has for the last couple of years. As with England’s famous 1990 run, there is a sense that the football can provide some means of escape from the grim reality of the country at a particular moment in time. Sweden will likely adopt a defensive approach and invite England to try and break them down and England must take the opportunity. They have a genuine chance of reaching only their third ever World Cup semi-final and the first for an entire generation of supporters. In the words of The Libertines, a band prone to wearing England shirts on magazine covers at their peak, “There were no good old days, these are the good old days”.