The dream is now more than half a century old. Time and time again, it’s been punctured, burst, deflated, killed, ruined.
Generations of players, fans, memories – all with that same dream, and all feeling it slip through their fingers. Out of their sight.
Watching the world’s footballing elite parade that glorious golden trophy. But never us. Not since 1966 – a time many of us can’t remember. A time many of us weren’t even here for.
Just one World Cup semi-final since – in 1990. Yet another heartbreaking footnote in English football history; penalties, the Germans. You know the rest.
You felt it coming on Tuesday 3rd July. That last-gasp Colombian equaliser. The dreaded shootout. You knew what was happening next.
But something changed. Something was different.
These weren’t players with the weight of expectation leaning on them. These were young men, a tight-knit group of friends, led by their unassuming coach. A friend, a father figure. A man who’d been there before. Whose most notable contribution to the national team was itself a penalty shootout failure.
He knew what these players were up against. But he used it to his advantage, and to their advantage. Gareth Southgate: The “yes” man. The man nobody wanted. The safe choice. The uninspired appointment.
But when Jordan Pickford saved that Carlos Bacca penalty and Eric Dier slotted home the following spot kick, time stood still. The mood changed. This wasn’t just a dream anymore, it was becoming a very real possibility.
Gareth Southgate. The World Champion?
The evolution of a distant dream
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
For once, England weren’t one of the pre-tournament favourites. National expectation was as low as it ever had been. The so-called golden generation couldn’t deliver, how could we expect a gang of players who’ve barely been heard of outside of our shores to do anything?
Quarter-finals at best, said the experts.
It opened with a tense, fraught game against Tunisia. England sides of old would have laboured to a 1-1 draw. Pegged back after a strong opening, the momentum would have fizzled out.
But not this England team. They keep going, always believing. And there’s the poster boy, Harry Kane, with all the freedom of the box to head home the injury time winner.
Next up it was Panama. Surely another lacklustre England tournament performance against the competition minnows? No…
Total obliteration ensued. The tournament’s biggest victory, a Kane hat trick. Now the excitement was really building… Through to the knockout stage with a game to spare. Theoretically we didn’t even need anything against a pre-tournament favourite, Belgium.
In fact, it looked like we don’t want anything against Belgium. By some strange twist of fate, the path to the promised land was much more achievable by finishing 2nd in the group.
England did finish 2nd, and that history-breaker of a game against Colombia came around.
The players stood tall in the face of South American histrionics. Figureheads of this side from tournaments past, the likes of Beckham and Rooney, have succumbed to such underhand tactics.
Not this England team.
Through on penalties in a World Cup game – a sentence never before spoken or written about an England side. And now the path is clearing.
Sweden await. They’re organised; a team unit greater than the sum of their parts. But so are England.
And England have a bit more. A touch more pace, craft and guile. A man with a battering ram for a forehead. Harry Maguire’s rise from obscurity to lynchpin of the England defence (and aerial attacking threat extraordinaire) is emblematic of this team’s fabric – honest, hardworking players writing their own history.
Maguire, a man who appeared in an England shirt at the previous tournament, just two years ago in France. The difference being that he was there with friends as a supporter. His new friends are supporting him with wicked set-piece deliveries in football’s showcase competition – and Maguire is thriving.
Now, all of a sudden, here we are. Just a third World Cup semi-final. Won one, lost one. Croatia the side standing between England and an unlikely, nay inconceivable appearance in the final.
A divided nation, united by football
It’s just a game… Is it?
Look at the response. Every England victory this summer has seen an increased level of fanatical scenes, in Russia and at home.
Pints of beer are being consumed in record number, thousands more are arcing their way through the air in packed pubs and beer gardens whenever the ball hits the net. Victories are bringing entire cities to a standstill.
Sometimes it crosses the line – unsavoury scenes of people jumping on ambulances aren’t to be encouraged. But in the main, it’s an outpouring of emotion and celebration. For once, England are giving us something to cheer – and letting us keep the dream alive.
It’s an escape. We work long hours. We have bills to pay. We watch and read the news only to hear negative stories; moorland fires, murder, gang crime, Brexit. It’s a divided nation, and yet 23 footballers and their coaching staff are bringing us closer together. This is England.
“It’s coming home” is a new (old) way of acknowledging someone or something. In this digital age, the endless memes it’s spawned have reached every corner of the globe. It surely started as a tongue-in-cheek refrain, but now, maybe, it really is coming. The most unlikely self-fulfilling prophecy.
Everywhere you go, Baddiel and Skinner’s collaboration with The Lightning Seeds is blaring out. A song made for Euro ’96, a tournament held on these shores that ended in familiar fashion. An audio emblem of the dream that never happened and the reverie we still have.
People who don’t like football now like football. Viewing figures are through the roof, even though they don’t include those watching on communal screens.
And these players aren’t just players. They’re humans. After games, they don’t just applaud the fans, they go into the stand and talk to them. They sign shirts, take selfies, give the supporters a memory to cherish – because they appreciate the fans. And the fans appreciate the players.
Harry Kane, concentrating on captaining the squad, takes time out of his schedule to watch videos of the wild celebrations back home. He even makes a point of sending a message of hope and inspiration to a five-year-old football mad cancer sufferer.
Then there’s the manager. The man who didn’t even really want the job. He didn’t want the stresses and strains that the step up from under-21 level coach would surely bring. Most of the supporters didn’t want him to get the job, either.
Despite all that, Gareth Southgate has emerged as an eloquent, polite and compassionate man. He gives hope that good people can reach the top. He goes about his business with no drama or fuss. Nobody can say a bad word about him.
He sets up the team, but makes sure they get the praise. He’s a little bashful when he’s lauded by the fans – but deep down you can see he’s living a dream of his own. Look how he conducts the crowd as they serenade him:
Yet you know minutes later his attention is back on the players. He’s keen for them to enjoy the moment, to share their views of the game from their own perspective. To relish the history they’re making. Then, and only then, is it time to move onto the next challenge.
Two steps from sporting immortality
If you don’t like football, don’t you at least like joy? Don’t you like seeing a nation come as one? Don’t you love the idea of a dream being realised?
We’ll talk about Russia 2018 like we still do of Euro ’96 and Italia ’90. 20, 30 years down the line, we’ll read books and watch documentaries about that night (or those nights?) in Moscow. The next few days will dictate if they’re of the same ilk as One Night in Turin, or whether they’re a jubilant celebration of our national football team’s finest hour.
Whether or not football comes home this time, our team will return as heroes. If they win their next two matches, they’ll be cast as immortals.
Whatever happens from here on in, drink it in. You’re living a moment in English sporting history.