Football’s summer of love, which has gloriously taken England to the semi-finals of the World Cup and back into the hearts of their supporters, has united a country that “has had a long time of suffering”, Gareth Southgate declared on Tuesday night.
On the eve of the monumental encounter here with Croatia, the England manager spoke passionately of the power of sport to heal divisions and urged his young players to keep breaking down “the barriers” as they continue to write their own history. There was even another oblique reference to Brexit and the rift it had caused back home, which again marked out Southgate as a rarity: a football manager with a world view and one not afraid to express that.
“We’re really proud of the support we’re receiving,” Southgate said. “We’ve had the chance to make a difference. Our supporters, our country has had a long time of suffering in terms of football.
“The enthusiasm they [the fans] have for these players, not only because of the way they’ve played but how they’ve conducted themselves … they’ve been brilliant ambassadors for our country, everybody can see they are proud to wear the shirt. It’s great for them that they’ve got some enjoyable experiences now playing for England.
“Our country has been through some difficult moments recently in terms of its unity, and sport has the power to do that [unite]. Football, in particular, has the power to do that. We can feel the energy and feel support from home and it’s a very special feel, a privilege for us.”
It has, remarkably, also been a privilege to watch Southgate and this England team perform at a World Cup which, whatever now happens, will be warmly remembered for decades to come.
It has been the wishlist World Cup for England. One in which mental blocks and milestones have been passed, as Southgate observed.
“We’ve scored in the last minute, conceded in the last minute, come through extra time and penalties. We’ve made several pieces of history,” Southgate said of the serial failings which have been banished.
“Biggest win in the tournament, first knockout win for 10 years, first quarter-final win for longer . We keep looking to break the barriers down. It’s been an enjoyable journey, and we want to keep it going.”
As for the semi-final, Southgate added: “For us as a team, yes, it’s another chance to create a small piece of history. We’re only the second England team to reach a semi-final out of our country [after the 1990 World Cup in Italy], and that’s quite significant. In 1996, we had every game at Wembley and that was an advantage for us.
“We’ve got to keep getting over those hurdles and I know we talked about the success of the younger teams, but this is a much harder, much bigger levels for the players and the belief is building as things are happening. The more of these tests we can come through, the better, not just for now, but moving forward.”
England have conquered so many demons during this tournament, on the pitch and off it, with the reconnection with the fans maybe the biggest bonus as it showed the national team matter, but now they have the opportunity to do something that no one truly believed was likely: reach the World Cup final for the first time since 1966. Even typing those words seems unreal.
Already, the disappointments and humiliations – from St Etienne to Shizuoka, from Lisbon to Gelsenkirchen, from Bloemfontein to Kiev and from Manaus to Nice – have something else alongside them; not in their place but at least to provide relief. A relief that can go so much further and, yes, rid those hurts if England beat Croatia and return to the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday and lift the trophy. It is almost unthinkable and yet so possible.
First, though, England will have to beat what Southgate readily admits is the most formidable opponent they will have faced at this tournament. “They’ll be the best team we’ve played in terms of what they’re capable of doing with the ball, and what individuals are capable of, definitely,” Southgate said.
Croatia are certainly a step up from Tunisia, Panama, Colombia – without James Rodríguez – and Sweden, while England’s tie against Belgium was a meeting of two second strings.
One only has to look at the roll call of clubs the Croatians play for to understand that: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Atlético Madrid, Liverpool, Monaco. Their players have won nine Champions Leagues between them, compared to England’s one, and 11 of their squad have more than 40 caps.
Perhaps even more significantly, most of the team have been together for a decade but are peaking now and brimming with motivation for their first semi-final since 1998.
“In November, we played Brazil and Neymar was in the side,” Southgate said when reminded that his team would face a genuine world-class performer in the midfielder. “We prepare the same way for every opposition. You will highlight certain players and positions they’re likely to take. Some of the attributes they bring to the game that need additional focus.” Not that there will be information overload. “I’ve played in a lot of teams where, b—– h—, we played Nuneaton Borough in the cup once and thought their centre-forward was Eusebio because we’d built him up that much in the pre-match briefing,” Southgate said, in a sign that he was relaxed.
“You can overdo the information for players. The lads know these players, but also as a team we’ve got good defensive organisation. That has to be spot on the further you go in the tournament …
“We don’t have to shift from what we’ve been and what we’ve been doing because we can cover those players from within that system, albeit you know they can produce moments that you’ve got to be even more aware of.” England will not change, then, and they will be ready. This is the game of their lives but, hopefully, only for five days, when they can return to the Russian capital for the final.