After so much humiliation, England a source of pride, unity
SAMARA, Russia — So often the source of letdowns and embarrassments, England’s soccer team is a unifying force among players and the nation.
At least in some sections of the country riven by economic, political and social divisions that led to Brexit, reaching the World Cup semifinals is a welcome distraction from the charged atmosphere. It’s a chance to clamber onto traffic lights, fling beer in the air and toast the success of the footballers in an outpouring of delirium not witnessed across England since the last century.
For the first time since the 1990s, England is in the last four of a major tournament. England will play Croatia on Wednesday for a place in the final after beating Sweden 2-0 Saturday.
“The chance to connect everybody through football and to make a difference to how people feel,” England coach Gareth Southgate said, “that is even more powerful than what we are doing with our results. That is very special. I would imagine there is a big party at home. Not for us.”
There is still much work to do if England is to reach its first World Cup final since lifting the trophy on home soil at Wembley in 1966.
But Southgate believes he has instilled the humble mentality in the dressing room that is required to keep the journey going all the way to Luzhniki Stadium next Sunday. Humility has replaced the hubris that defined the celebrity-obsessed David Beckham-era where the furthest the team reached was the quarterfinal stage of any tournament. Just look back on how Harry Maguire, who headed in Saturday’s first goal, reported for England duty for the first time last year with his clothing in a black trash bag rather than designer luggage.
Ambitions appeared to be thwarted for so long by a culture of entitlement as England gloried in the hype and status of being the birthplace of soccer without backing it up with results. And as players started to collect millions in salaries from their clubs, commitment to the national team was called into question.
“We don’t have renowned world-class players yet,” Southgate said, “but lots of good young players who are showing on the world stage that they’re prepared to be brave with the ball, try to play the right way, have shown some mental resilience now.”
At the start of his tenure in 2016, Southgate realized he had to deliver an important message to his players: Any success with England will be greater than anything achieved with their clubs.
“They have been prepared to park their club rivalries at the door,” Southgate said. “We’ve talked about how important it is to have that spirit.”
Also, how to recover from adversity. One of the lowest points for English soccer came two years ago — days after that European Union referendum in Britain — when a team coached by Roy Hodgson was humiliated by Iceland.
“Under pressure they suffered,” Southgate said. “They will have days when they are not able to cope with things.”
But experiencing the misery at Euro 2016 as players — or as a fan in the stadium like Maguire —helped a Harry Kane-led England advance relatively serenely to its first World Cup semifinal since 1990, according to Southgate. England even managed to beat Colombia in the round of 16 on penalties, halting a run of five successive shootout losses at tournaments.
The victories in Russia are also reversing an anomaly. England hosts the world’s richest soccer competition — the Premier League — but hasn’t been able to produce a national team to match. Southgate was on the last England side to reach a semifinal, at the 1996 European Championship, when the team anthem was “Three Lions.” The “football’s coming home” lyric is back in vogue in Russia, ringing out from stadiums to bars among the few thousand fans who defied the logistical challenges to follow the team.
“We have a good balance and the team are together,” 53-year-old England fan Andrew Court said outside the stadium in Samara where Maguire and Dele Alli scored the goals against Sweden.
Southgate, though, is looking beyond the hollow “Football’s coming home” concept.
Reflecting a studious approach, the platform gained from his greatest day in soccer was used to deliver several powerful messages on Saturday. Above all, Southgate wants more Englishmen playing alongside the Premier League imports.
“The more remarkable thing is that we’re in a semifinal,” Southgate said. “We only have 33 percent of the league to pick from. So that is still a huge problem for us, and we’re playing some young players who are barely established at their clubs, never mind international careers.
“But we feel that they’re able to play the way we want to play, playing huge pride, playing with no lack of quality, showing the sort of mentality to work for the group,” he said.
And it’s a group that, Southgate emphasizes, reflects the diversity of England and cuts through the economic divide in England where so much wealth is centered in the south.
Southgate has singled out the less affluent northern towns where players like Maguire are from.
“All of these players come from different parts of the country,” Southgate said, “and they’ll be youngsters watching at home from the areas that they come from. They’ll be inspiring.”
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