I don’t know if England were any good on Sunday, but I’m not sure it matters. You see, much of the country’s relationship with the national team seems to consist of the intangibles, the unseen forces, that mean that debating style and technique is slightly redundant. What matters, really, is how people feel about the players.
And whose heart didn’t sing when Harry Kane charged away after scoring the winning goal, or when Jesse Lingard caught and embraced him, and the two went rolling towards the corner flag.
It was an England performance of several different acts. For an hour, they played with poise and precision, but without the decisive composure in front of goal. Then, after Croatia stole the lead, the systems collapsed and everything started to look terribly blunt. One Joe Gomez heave later, though, and everything was different again: it became a Rocky fight of a match, with both sides throwing desperate haymakers in pusuit of a win.
Fortunately enough, it was England left standing. One eye was closed, the knees had gone, but they had just enough to get off their stool, leave their corner, and take their place in next summer’s final tournament.
That’s all you want, isn’t it? Between international breaks, it’s fine to talk about players and formations, to wonder about this deficiency and that strength. But when it comes time to actually play, all of that is peripheral. Maybe not at club level, where dispassionate analysis is so terribly en vogue, but when England take the field they are a team of the heart. Competence is importance, of course, but not as significant as the vague sense that something positive is happening and that, because it’s occuring to relatable, likeable people, it’s something that you want to happen too.
Over the summer, the “It’s Coming Home” chants caused quite a stir. The world’s default assumption is that the English are arrogant – that everyone looks and sounds like Jacob Rees-Mogg and the island is littered with people who get misty eyed at the mention of the “empire”. As a result, they don’t need to be asked twice to construct a grievance. See: Croatia.
Perhaps some fault does lie with the natives, though. Or at least, perhaps their relationship with their side is impossible to comprehend from beyond these walls. It’s Coming Home wasn’t a response to expected glory, but rather a reaction to having the team back – to England games being fun again, of them binding the population in a way that they haven’t for decades. Southgate mentioned post-game on Sunday that he hadn’t heard Wembley sound as it did since the rebuild. The next World Cup is four years away and nobody has started thinking about the European Championships yet; in this case, then, clearly that enthusiasm is not tied to any international tournament or any other measurable sort of achievement.
So: well done, England, because this is how it’s supposed to feel. What is this – pride?