How England fell back in love with the national team at the 2018 World Cup

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The ESPN FC boys dissect what went wrong in England’s semifinal loss to Croatia.

(Editors’ note: We asked Nick Hornby — novelist and screenwriter who wrote about his obsessive fandom of Arsenal in “Fever Pitch” — to reflect on what it’s like to follow England during a World Cup. This is the third of three pieces he wrote for ESPN while England chased glory in Russia. His first, on the unbearable hope that comes from supporting England, can be read here. His second was about the World Cup of dreams.) 

These last three weeks have felt like they will soon serve as the backdrop to a novel about contemporary England, because everyone will remember this summer — the summer where the sun never stopped shining, the Thai boys escaped from the caves and the government fell apart while England reached the World Cup semifinals and the nation gathered in larger and larger numbers to watch. None of it would have meant as much without the football tournament, which felt momentous in some way, but which ended, as so many tournaments have, with England losing a football match, disappointingly, to a team from a much smaller country.

But let’s start with the good news. England won two World Cup knockout games, thus doubling the number of victories they have managed this century; they won a penalty shoot-out for the first time ever; the team’s captain is likely to win the Golden Boot; everyone fell in love with the manager, who looks like he might be around for a while; and nobody booed the team, at any point in the tournament.

One might go so far as to say that the country likes this national team, its youth and its humility and its joyous celebrations, and that we might go on liking them, for a while. At the moment, it’s hard to imagine any of its component parts being replaced. Jordan Pickford will always be the goalkeeper, Harry Maguire will always be at the back, Harry Kane will always lead the line.

But there will be injuries, and players who missed the tournament will return, and young players will come through, and some of them will fall out of favour. Who would have predicted, after the heart-breaking penalty losses against Germany in Euro 1996 and Argentina in 1998, after brave and enthralling performances, that the team would be a shambles by 2000?

Things fall apart very quickly in sport, or perhaps in this small island of it.

There is every reason to hope that this will not be the case this time. An extraordinary five out of the eight England managers before Gareth Southgate lost their jobs for non-footballing reasons — through newspapers stings, or financial impropriety, or, in one case, for baffling remarks about crimes perpetrated by the disabled in previous lives. The lack of continuity has not helped the cause.

One would bet any money that Southgate will only cease to be England manager because of what happens on the field of play, or (less likely, but one can dream) because he is very, very old, and he has finally lost his appetite for winning major trophies. He is both smart and serious, and the press likes him in a way they couldn’t like Fabio Capello or Steve McLaren. If it rains during a game, one likes to think that Southgate will get wet, rather than stand ostentatiously under a brolly. And his knowledge of England’s young players, a substantial portion of whom have won two World Cups in their age categories recently, allows one to picture a production line of major international talent taking us right through to North Korea (or wherever FIFA ‘decides’) 2030.

But there is another way of looking at the last three weeks. One could argue that Marcus Rashford’s miss against Belgium was just as responsible for England’s success as any actual achievement. A round of 16 match against Japan might have been manageable, although Belgium struggled; a quarterfinal against Brazil would almost certainly have been a bridge too far.

Is that unfair? I don’t think so.

England played six teams during the tournament. Four of them weren’t great at all, and the Three Lions struggled against two of those; the other two were good, and England lost against both.

And has ever a Golden Boot looked less shiny than Kane’s? Four penalties, one deflection, a header from a corner, and nothing during the quarterfinals or semifinals.

England’s failure to score from open play wasn’t a problem at first; goals are goals. But against teams as savvy as Croatia, the feeling that the actual game part of the game, where players pass the ball to each other and create chances, is of no use to England, something to be endured until they get a free-kick or a corner, became increasingly frustrating.

We were thrilled to see an England team play with pace, but you can’t always use it, especially when you don’t have the ball, and perhaps what was missing from this England team — and, more worryingly, in English football as a whole — was a player or two who can control a game like Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic can. The only player Southgate had at his disposal of that type was Jack Wilshire, no longer the player he was, but perhaps a helpful Identikit picture of the player he needs.

The talisman in Russia was Harry Maguire, inspiration for a million affectionate memes. What’s not to love?

A Yorkshireman who has played for Sheffield United, Hull, Wigan and Leicester, he was at the Euros in 2016 as a fan, with his mates. He scored a thumping header in the quarterfinals. He is One Of Us, the authentic representative of all the fans who wave flags of St George from Kettering and Coventry and Barnsley.

In the old days, before football became a serious business, many club teams had a cult figure like Harry. Arsenal had Willie Young in the 1970s, a gangling, slow, inept yet yes, somehow loveable centre-back most famous now for chopping down a teenager on the edge of the box in a Cup Final, robbing said teenager of the chance to score a romantic goal.

Maguire had a truly magnificent tournament and deserves every shower of praise that comes his way. And yet … (I am reluctant to write the following sentence, which is why I am using the pseudonym “Nick Hornby” for this piece. The nation can cart him off to the Tower of London and chop off his head, and it serves him right.) Maguiremania may not entirely be a good thing.

Let’s imagine England had held out in the second half of the Croatia game, and were preparing to face France in the Final. Would I be the only one worried about a Maguire vs. Kylian Mbappe matchup? Is there a chance that Harry might not even have got close enough to kick him?

Perhaps at international level there is no place for cult figures in the English footballing sense of the term, and our fondness for making virtues out of necessities indicates a desire for underdog status even when we’re not underdogs. (England didn’t play any country with a population larger than London’s in the entire tournament, and nor did they play a team above them in FIFA’s world rankings.) We’re happier that way.

And yet our dream is not to pull off the impossible. Our dream is to hear the name of our country mentioned when pundits are talking about the most likely finalists in any given tournament. “There’s Germany, of course. And you can never rule out Brazil. And England are always there or thereabouts.”

It really wasn’t very hard getting to the World Cup semifinal. It’s often not hard, for the teams that win their groups. That’s Southgate’s mission: to make the impossible become routine.

An English novelist and screenwriter, Nick is best known for his seminal football memoir “Fever Pitch,” as well as his novels “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy.”



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