It has been 52 long years of hurt; yet the quiet optimism of England fans has exploded into a worldwide meme and a genuine belief that the nation can go all the way.
Last night saw one of the worst fixtures in World Cup history as both England and Colombia put competition above honour. England were guilty of leaving a few in on the Colombians, whilst Colombia’s tactics revolved around winding England up; on and off the pitch.
It was more a mental battle than a physical one, in the same vein as a hyper-aggressive game of chess. The tone was set by the end of the first half when we had seen a head-butt from Barrios onto the chest and jaw of Jordan Henderson, whilst a member of Colombia’s backroom staff shoulder barged Raheem Sterling when he was withdrawing from the pitch for half time.
The second half was a little more exciting but felt like a game of American Football with play stopping every play for a free-kick. However, it went all the way to penalties after a late equaliser from Yerry Mina cancelled out Harry Kane’s spot kick and many an England fan’s heart dropped at the prospect of another penalty shooutout exit.
28 years ago today, on the 4th of July 1990, England played West Germany in the semi-final of Italia ’90. The game finished 1-1 at full-time after Gary Lineker’s 80th minute reply to Andreas Brehme’s goal. The match remained even after extra-time and would be decided by a penalty shoot-out. Sadly, England lost 4-3 on penalties and missed out on a place in the final.
Fast forward another six years, to Euro 1996. Rematch against the Germans. Two goals in the opening 16 minutes at Wembley and the game, once again, finished 1-1; even after extra-time. The first five penalty takers from both teams scored before current England manager Gareth Southgate missed a penalty, sending England out once again on a shootout.
This time, history did not repeat itself and England managed to escape the ghosts of the past, winning the shootout 4-3 against the Colombians. When Jordan Henderson had his penalty saved by Arsenal keeper David Ospina, hearts around England sank and it was the belief that once again, penalties would cost us a deserved victory. However, when Matheus Uribe hit the woodwork and Kieran Trippier converted his kick, hopes were lifted.
AC Milan forward Carlos Bacca stepped up to the spot and Everton’s Jordan Pickford denied the Colombian, leaving it down to Eric Dier to convert the goal that would send England into the quarter-final. Dier tucked it away with ease, and England would claim the final place in the 2018 World Cup quarter-finals.
Speaking after the event, heroic keeper Jordan Pickford said “I’ve done a lot of research on them with our analysis staff so we had a fair feeling on what they were going to do with them. It’s about set, react and go with power. I’ve got power and agility – I don’t care if I’m not the biggest keeper. I have the power and agility and then it was about being in the moment.”
What this shows us, is that England were, unlike ever before, prepared to go all the way if need be. With the penalty failure of the past on their shoulders, they learnt from previous sides; in a way that had never been done before. Southgate will have learnt from both his own mistakes, and that of the typical England sides of yore, preparing them both mentally and physically for the dreaded eventualities of penalty kicks.
What England demonstrated was a never-before-seen resilience and a confidence that, despite being knocked down on a couple of occasions, both physically and mentally, helped these young lions knock out a much more experienced set of Colombians.
The aftermath of the match has been riddled with criticism; Falcao complaining of an anti-Colombian bias whilst Maradona claims that, although he thought corruption was eliminated from FIFA (however naïve that may be aside), Colombia were ‘robbed’ of the match. However, you can’t knock the determination of such a young squad to come back from the mental hit of conceding a last-minute equaliser.
Regardless of whether or not football is actually ‘coming home’, this team has shown the attitude, grit and confidence that gives England cause to be truly optimistic.
By: Sam Wilson
Photo: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA