As the day of reckoning beckons, does it? After all, it was the generation-defining triumph over Colombia that Gareth Southgate described as England’s biggest game for a decade. In a sense, this is a bonus for an unheralded and unfancied group of unlikely, yet likeable, lads.
Of course, this is the World Cup and in the short term at least, it is all about the winning. Yet, looking beyond this tournament, which is so wonderfully out of kilter with the diplomatic and infrastructural chaos that had been forecast, England already achieved much more than anyone could have reasonably assumed.
Every little bit of Baddiel and Skinner’s fabulous anthem is outdated by more than two decades and yet each stanza is so timeless. It has been belted out at every tournament since Euro ’96, tinged with more than a ripple of irony. But this time, it feels as if the caustic satire is accompanied by a genuine belief that the plates have shifted.
Yes, the football bears an authoritative control and precision rarely associated with England teams. The tactical system, derided when introduced during a mind-numbing display in Lithuania a year ago, is worlds away from a painful epoch of over-reliance on Emile Heskey’s broad frame. There was a time, if one dares to cast the mind back, when England used to shoehorn four world-class central midfielders into alien roles to satisfy a completely inappropriate formation. It was, essentially, a quadrennial futile ode to Mike Bassett.
But far beyond the football is something much more important. While refraining from dragging the game into the even murkier spectrum of politics, sport has always had the power to impact the nation. Sport’s influence on our emotions is why the relative failure of previous generations hit England fans so hard. It afflicted national fandom in such a way that – in many quarters – indifference replaced patriotism. The core of England’s supporters have remained and always will do. However, to contradict the old club adage that a team’s fortunes can be told through the size of its away following, the state of the national side is better reflected in the nation’s wider reaction.
This time, indifference has been replaced by fervour. At the risk of cheese, football – in that sense – has come home. Gareth Southgate – a genuinely good man in an industry very much shorn of such characters – has not so much been accepted as deified. Forgiveness, redemption and so much more for a man who was appointed by accident rather than by design. England have a team to be proud of, without the mainstream stars of days gone by, without the big-club bias that manifested itself in an emotional struggle to get behind those who, in their club colours, fans were taught to despise.
It is, perhaps, the first time this century that such pride and solidarity have existed among national team and national fanbase. Football is home. A trophy would be lovely, but – though intangible – Southgate’s side has achieved something so very meaningful.