England is reborn, even as it was ultimately disappointment again

For half a century and going on 52 years, England seemed to be laboring under some kind of curse. Never once in that time had it ever been the very best team in the world, exactly, but it always felt like it should be a good deal better than it was. After the 1966 World Cup title – England’s only final in a major tournament – several strong generations came and went, but none of them mustered anything beyond semifinal places at the 1968 and 1996 European Championships and the 1990 World Cup.

In the mid-2000s, England’s “golden generation” produced perhaps three of the five best midfielders in the world at that time. It also had several world-class defenders and a young Wayne Rooney in attack – arguably the best English player ever. But even that team got caught in a long procession of dispiriting quarterfinals and Round of 16 exits.

For this current England, of all Englands, to break through and reach a first semifinal in 22 years at this World Cup was remarkable. This generation, while talented, was also besieged. Raheem Sterling, one of its undisputed gems, is forever the target of inexplicably petty attacks from the tabloids. And most of them struggled initially to make their mark in the mega-moneyed Premier League, forever fighting for playing time against the world’s most expensive players.

This was, for a good while under former manager Roy Hodgson, a team largely made up of players who started for their country but not for their clubs, or played for second-rate teams. And for the first time in decades, the English press and public seemed to understand that it wasn’t entitled to international silverware. Expectations finally deflated, after all those tournaments when it was assumed that because the English had codified and popularized soccer globally in the 19th century, it was their birthright to be the best at it.

(Getty)

The pressure was off at long last. And so, naturally, England finally got to be as good as it always thought it should be. A fresh batch of talent was unburdened by the disappointment of the past and seemingly immune to whatever pressure eventually descended on it. These Three Lions, the second-youngest team at the tournament, with only three players over 28, just one of whom actually played, were either too young to be weighed down by the history of previous incarnations of their team, or simply didn’t care.

Neither, it seemed, did their manager, Gareth Southgate. After Hodgson left, Sam Allardyce lasted just 67 days as England manager, before he was caught on tape insulting Hodgson and explaining how to circumvent a Football Association rule on third-party ownership of players. Southgate, the under-21 manager, was made the interim manager and then the job fell to him full-time, when no superior option was evidently found.

Yet he was very much part of the program’s bad-luck heritage. At Euro ‘96, on home soil, he’d missed the decisive penalty in the shootout with Germany, extending the national soccer agony to a fourth decade.

England had an unusually simple time of it until this semifinal. The group stage had been a dawdle, with a late-won victory over Tunisia and a walkover against Panama. Southgate ran out the reserves against Belgium – as did his opponents – and successfully threw the game to get into the weak side of the bracket. Colombia seemed beaten until its injury-time equalizer, whereupon England undid years of hurt by finally winning a penalty shootout. Sweden never really threatened England in the quarterfinals.

It was all quite comfortable.

And the country gradually bought in, belting out the “Football is coming home” cri de coeur.

It all remained comfortable until the second half against Croatia, the weakest opponent the English could have reasonably hoped for at this stage of the tournament.

England had taken a quick fifth-minute lead when Dele Alli was brought down by Luka Modric, of all people, just outside the box, after a magnificent and daring turn by Jesse Lingard. Kieran Trippier bent the free kick between the posts.

Harry Kane missed a seemingly unmissable chance on the doorstep at the half-hour mark, but hit the near post and was wrongly called offside instead. England failed to put the game away then, and never really developed a rhythm in a flat first half.

Croatia finally began to play in the second act, while England remained disjointed. When Ivan Perisic snuck in front of Kyle Walker, who had just shaken off an injury, with a high boot above Walker’s head to dink the ball past Jordan Pickford, England was shaken.

It never recovered. And Pickford saved his team several teams before the English jitters finally took their toll in extra time. In the 109th minute, Walker didn’t clear a high ball far enough and Mario Mandzukic snuck behind John Stones to whack in the winner.

Yet for the capitulation and the crumbled hopes, for the disappointment that seemed almost preordained in retrospect, this was nevertheless a breakthrough performance for England. It played good soccer for long spells, keeping possession and attacking with sophistication. That was new. It didn’t seem hampered by its history. That was new as well.

And all that young talent, of course, was certainly new. This team, as Southgate himself pointed out, doesn’t appear anywhere near its ceiling. And there is more help on the way, with a raft of English youth national teams winning major tournaments recently.

England slayed a lot of dragons at this World Cup. It proved that it belongs among the elite again. Many of its ghosts were scared away in their march to the semifinals. And even if they stumbled at the last hurdle before the final, these young lions at last look capable of delivering at some future tournament.

They’re not there yet. But they might have found a path.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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