The England men’s football team has had quite the journey in the last half a decade. From being knocked out at the 2016 Euro by Iceland, to a World Cup semi-final in 2018 and then the 2020 Euro final, the Three Lions can only be proud of themselves as they turn their focus to Qatar 2022.
A final loss is bound to hurt as Southgate’s England, the second youngest side at the tournament, who tasted defeat in the cruellest of ways. And while the 19-year-old Bukayo Saka stood stunned, tears welling up, with Kalvin Phillips running to console him as Italian celebrations kicked off, Wembley applauded, a reaction very different to anger that was commonplace in the years gone by.
At the end of the evening, Luke Shaw’s early goal seemed like an age ago as England and Southgate were wrecked yet again by a penalty shootout, a jinx they seemed to have banished or at least begun the journey in Russia against Colombia.
Yes, it did not come home, but England edged closer to fulfilling a plan set in motion 10 years ago. Southgate joined the FA in 2011, and with former director of development Sir Trevor Brooking hatching the 10-year plan that would see England play attractive and successful football, which has finally borne fruit.
In 2013, the English set their targets on the 2022 World Cup, a clock was installed in a newly built coaches' room, counting down the days to Qatar 2022.
There were plenty of positives for England in the Euro campaign, but the team was yet again let down by their fans, who turned to violence and racism to express their disappointment.
England Make It to the Final of a Major Tournament, at Wembley
Southgate and co came into the tournament with plenty of expectations, and not without reason, from a young, exciting, and highly talented bunch of attackers like Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Jack Grealish, and Bukayo Saka among others.
But it was their defensive solidity that set them off on a run to the final, an aspect that was initially considered a chink in the armour.
While some of the fancied attack mostly warmed the benches in the group stage, those who played, mostly found it tough to get into their free-flowing rhythm. Controlled and with a few gears to go, England topped the group scoring a goal each against Croatia and Czech Republic while playing out a 0-0 against Scotland.
Understandably, the noise rose about the tactics ahead of the next game against bitter rivals Germany (Round of 16). Southgate stuck to his guns, Kane thankfully found the back of the net as did Sterling, ending a 55-year long losing streak in knockout games since 1966.
England went to Rome next where they turned up the style and trounced Ukraine 4-0 (quarter-final), registering a fifth consecutive clean sheet for Jordan Pickford, who not only matched Iker Casillas’ record from 2012 in the competition but also eclipsed Gordon Banks’ 720-minute record stretching back to 1966.
Back at Wembley for the semi-final, England edged past Denmark after a scare, a controversial penalty, and a fair number of misdeeds from the crowd inside the stadium.
Then came the big night! The one England had waited for since 1966 – a major tournament final.
Buoyed with hope, and an early goal, England seemed like they were on their way at Wembley, again. Leonardo Bonucci, 34, though wanted a record, becoming the oldest player to score in the final of the tournament, swinging the momentum in Italy’s favour as penalties beckoned.
The Italians held their nerve as Rashford, Sancho, and Saka, who had been excellent at every chance he was afforded, missed their penalties inviting rather mixed emotions.
Off Field Matters Turn Ugly
England’s team had left it all out there on the field, or so they and many felt, however, defeat, inexplicably opened the floodgates for unruly scenes and racial abuse directed at players.
It was particularly harrowing for Saka, who had been subjected to massive amount of abuse on social media because of his skin color. The likes of Rashford and Sancho too weren’t spared. The horrific comments, including the use of monkey emojis and racist language, have led to the FA asking the government to take action.
UEFA, the British PM Boris Johnson and a whole host of high-profile personalities have condemned the abuse even as Twitter swung into action. Understandably, the British politicians were quickly branded as hypocrite as the PM had earlier refused to condemn jeering the anti-racist gesture of taking the knee.
If social media abuse was one aspect of it all, some England supporters decided to take matters into their hands. Visiting fans were, again and this time on a much larger scale, on the wrong end of very nasty incidents.
A few searches through social media will reveal that London’s famous Trafalgar Square was a stark contrast to its usual self while Rome was beautiful as ever.
Where Do England Go From Here?
The Gareth Southgate-coached football team have their target set, they see it every day they are in St George’s Park. Southgate found late team talks disruptive as a player and that has stayed, expect more of that, better team bonding as compared to the club dominated cliques during the days of the Golden Generation, and of course the plan to not react to the outside noise.
Southgate has built a very likeable England team, one that is also quite talented with age on their side. And while they might be England’s best men’s football team for a while, are the rest who watch on so intently giving their best to be the best?
In 2017, English football exploded as the under-17s and under-20s won their respective World Cups, the under-18s won the Toulon tournament and the under-19s won the European Championship. From those squads there were Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Dominic Calvert-Lewin at the Euros.
Southgate’s been fundamental to England’s good fortunes, ironical, because for half his life failure at Wembley was what defined a part of his public identity, and he’s laid out the template for the whole nation to follow – empathy, equality, and kindness.
it’s as much up to the fans as the players themselves to make the experience of football enjoyable. And if the football team can change to provide more joy, how apt is the continuation of the tradition of violent and racist English fans?