After a long journey away, football might be coming home

England and football: Two words that have shared so much history over the years. The combo has gave rise to excitement, patriotism, ecstasy, but on the other side, far too often this generation, sadness and disappointment,

Despite all of that, the 2018 World Cup has given England fans plenty of reason to smile. After consecutive tournaments of mediocrity and disappointment, England’s “surprise” run to the semifinals comes as a noticeable contrast to the previous years.

The Premier League has certainly improved, at least in terms of managerial quality: the likes of David Moyes and Andres Villas-Boas have eventually become replaced by the caliber of José Mourinho and Mauricio Pochettino. Many had hoped that this increase in bonafide elite managers would translate into a heightened tactical coherence for the Three Lions. While in 2006, the time of reckoning for their previous golden generation, a team featuring the likes of Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand, and Steven Gerrard failed to live up to their enormous hype under Sven-Goran Eriksson, and they crashed out at the quarter-finals to Portugal.

The Swedish coach managed England from 2001 to 2006, but the Three Lions failed to move past the quarterfinals in either the 2002 World Cup, the 2004 Euros, and the 2006 World Cup. Back in 2006, when the gilden England stars were considered in their pomp, England failed to break the quarterfinals curse, an underachievement that England stars lament on their own failures to connect with each other off the pitch, their underwhelming performances, and a tactically rigid 4-4-2 that failed to get the best out of their best players’ skillsets.

There is absolutely none of that to be seen now. Back then, when England had the best midfield in the world, akin to Spain this past generation in terms of undisputed supremacy, England’s players were in their own dimension, failing to gel with one another into a tactically coherent side. Now, with a midfield three that had previously left much to be desired–Jesse Lingard, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli–this England team has become one of the most balanced teams in the competition–assured in defense, astute in build-up, and automatic on set-pieces. There’s a genuine feeling that these guys are true friends, and that they’re giving it their best to bring football home.

Let’s scroll back to another chapter. World Cup 2010. There wasn’t as much in terms of expectations in comparison to the the previous tournaments, and there wasn’t the same amount of top-notch stars in their heyday. Sure, there was a good amount of veteran leaders, from Jamie Carragher, Wayne Rooney (yes, he was a veteran at 25), and John Terry, but England fans let themselves get their hopes up like they did in previous years. And the group was essentially a cinch: USA, Slovenia, and Algeria. Could this weathered, veteran side finally live up to what they were cracked out to be?

The tournament got off to a great start. Gerrard dinked the ball past Tim Howard to start off with a 1-0 lead in the 4th minute, but ecstasy quickly turned into horror for the old lions. Clint Dempsey’s unthreatening long shot was set to be gathered for a routine save by Rob Green, but a brainfart compelled the QPR goalkeeper to let the ball slither past his gloves and into the goal. USA would go on to draw 1-1. The following match, against Algeria, Green was dropped in favor of a 39-year-old David James. However, this mere line-up chance by Fabio Capello was not sufficient to spur England to victory, and Algeria would go on to draw 0-0. With the final match-day approaching, England were about to face a do-or-die opportunity. Slovenia topped the table with 4 points, while the USA and Algeria held 2 and 1 points, respectively. England, with 2 points, needed to grind out a win against Slovenia to assure progression into the knockout round. They got the job done thanks to an early goal from Jermain Defoe, but their failure to finish and seal a victory saw doubts regarding the team’s ability persist.

In the Round of 16, England faced off against Germany in a tournament for the first time since their 1996 Euros heartbreak on penalties. Thirty years prior to that heartbreak, England defeated Germany to win their first, and so far, only trophy in their history. Up against a Germany team that just two years prior, made it to the Euros Final, England’s fans hopes of reaching the quarterfinal were few and far between. As expected, England’s frailties were exposed immediately, and after around just half an hour of play, they trailed by two goals against an opponent that seemed unstoppable. A header from Matthew Upson saw England pull one back saw England regain confidence and rhythm, but Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal took away England’s best chance of pulling off an upset. Germany scored twice more and won 4-1.

The controversy from the disallowed goal would be a huge factor in the implementation of goal-line technology, but still, England fans accepted that they were wholly inferior to Die Mannschaft, and that it was time for a change. However, pulling one back soon gave them confidence and the cruelty of the Uruguayan referee to count Lampard’s goal as regular caused a lot of controversy, which conquered the media, especially the newspapers of tomorrow and undoubtedly, this incident was a huge factor in applying the goal-line technology. Afterwards, England lose 4-1, going out with a bitter end from this edition, too. As expected, the pressure mounted on Fabio Capello, the Champions League-winning manager who took the England job after England’s shock elimination from Euros qualification in 2007. However, Capello did not resign, and remained England manager until February 2012 after the FA decided to remove the captaincy from John Terry, thus leading to his retirement from the national team.

Then came Brazil. Samba, sea, sand, and football. England were drawn into the same group with Uruguay, Italy and the underdogs, Costa Rica. The expectations? A tough game vs. Italy, a competitive one vs Uruguay and an easy, very easy one vs. Costa Rica. However, once again, reality shared nothing in common with the expectations.

In the first game, England fell prey to the taxing, tropical heat of Manaus, growing fatigued and making schoolboy errors in defense, as they lost 1-2 to Italy. Perhaps they should’ve recognized the signs from the gods that this was going to be a comedically awful tournament from them: England physiotherapist Gary Lewin was taken off on a stretcher after dislocating his ankle while celebrating Daniel Sturridge’s goal. The game after, Uruguay defeated England on the back of a brace from Luis Suárez–the best player in the Premier League at the moment and simultaneously a national pariah. England drew to Costa Rica in the final match–a dead rubber after being eliminated by Uruguay–and Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions finished bottom of Group D.

Four years later, it’s time for Russia. No more sand, but no ice either. The difference? England no longer boasted a coach with a glamorous CV, the kind you’d hang on your wall in a platinum frame. Now, Gareth Southgate, whose most memorable action for England was having his penalty saved during England’s Euro 96′ heartbreak to Germany, whose last game in senior management came when Middlesborough were fourth in Championship, he was appointed as England’s new manager.Back in December 2007, then-Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger deemed Southgate as ‘’good enough’’ to manage England, but this remained as a mere opinion until September 2016. Now, after almost 2 years of work, he has completely refreshed the team, combining popular, experienced figures like Ashley Young and Jordan Henderson with the young talent of Harry Maguire and Jesse Lingard, while also giving chances to youngsters like Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Trent-Alexander Arnold. As a result, England are, for the first time in 28 years, in the semi-finals of a World Cup. With a fascinating maturity and chemistry in the young side, with an astute tactical setup, and with a glorious overdose of merriment teeming through the heat wave-torn streets, there is once again, a genuine belief that football is coming home.

By: Zach Lowy and Helgi Llozana

Photo: Getty