English fans and their media are known for exaggerating their national team’s football prowess, but nobody here in Russia has seen anything in them that suggests they are not right this time.
Their team has managed to confound the doubters with gritty, but an unspectacular brand of football that has seen them in the last four of the biggest football competition in the world.
Unlike many of their previous sides, some even more endowed with quality players than the Gareth Southgate tutored team, the Three Lions have won a penalty shootout, a malaise that dogged the team in previous competitions until they overcame Colombia in the second round of Russia 2018.
Saturday’s victory over a dour Sweden in one of the quarterfinal matches has brought a new dimension to football followership even from England.
At the end of the match in Samara, English fans swooped on the streets singing and dancing to a new high in their football, which for the first time in 28 years is showing signs of rising above the excuses that usually trailed every failed attempt at glory.
England has a new hero in goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who made three outstanding saves to keep the Three Lions in the game, while in Southgate and his entire troop are a group of legends waiting for knighthood. If only they would reach the next level.
How many litres of beer can a people drink? At the fan fest in Samara city centre, English fans must have set a new record in the amount of alcohol a group of revelers can drink in a single night.
It was as if the measure of greatness is in guzzling and getting as drunk as one could be.
Songs like ‘It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming home’ rent the air.
And to some of the non-English fan, it was as if hell’s gate has been opened for its ‘harmless’ inmates to express their sense of freedom. It is a freedom of sorts as England had been chained by failure for more than 50 years after Bobby Charlton and co won the trophy at home 1966.
It is an irony that one of the new heroes, Gareth Southgate, only got the job because Sam Allardyce was sacked following revelations of some of his unsavoury activities by the Telegraph of London. But the former England centre half has changed his players’ mentality and style of play.
Now even those that criticised him for fielding a second-string side against Belgium in the group stage see the sense in that decision.
Had Southgate played with his full squad and beaten or drawn with Belgium, the Three Lions would have faced Japan in the round of 16 and Brazil in the quarterfinals. With hindsight, the outcome of those games could have been different.
One of the English fans, Alex Smith told The Guardian that England was gearing up for its biggest party in a century.
Like most of his compatriots, Smith doesn’t believe any team in this competition can stop the Three Lions when they are in full flight.
But he has a word for Southgate, “Caution Raheem Sterling to be more accurate with his shots and give more game time to Jamie Vardy.” He is a Leicester City fan, who believes Vardy is more prolific in front of goal than Skipper Harry Kane.
“I am not saying that he should drop Kane. They can play together with Alli and Jesse Lingard behind them,” he said before joining his mates in singing the Beatles ‘Here comes the sun.’
At the end of Saturday’ victory over Sweden, the families of members of the English team, who were based at the Parklane Hotel in St. Petersburg, were flown to Samara to be part of the audience during the game. They joined their mates on the pitch after the game to celebrate the feat.
The wives and girlfriends (WAGS) of the English players, who have been supporting the team all the way, took centre stage as the players saluted their travelling fans, who were also jumping and singing to the victory.
Jamie Vardy’s wife, Rebekah Vardy posted a picture of herself and Jordan Pickford’s partner, Megan Davison, Harry Maguire’s girlfriend, Fern Hawkins and Jack Butland’s partner, Annabel Peyton.
In the midst of all the accolades, the brain behind England’s delirium, Southgate is still cautious of the task ahead for his team. But he acknowledges the impact his young side is having on the country.
He told an English website, talkSPORT: “It’s such a privilege to be able to bring that happiness to everybody because we know what it means to our country.
“We feel that, through football, we are able to change the mood of the nation and bring a real connection with the fans. We’re really feeling that energy.”
He gave his side a day off yesterday, saying the team should focus on getting sufficient rest and recovery time.
“Well it does, this phase of the tournament is completely different,” he added with a laugh.
“When you’re younger you think big matches like this you’ll have a load of time to prepare, but we won’t.
“It will be really; sleep, swimming pool, ice and we’ve got to get the energy back as quickly as we can.”
England joins Croatia, France and Belgium in the semifinals of the competition.
The English team will meet Croatia in the second semifinals of the competition on Wednesday in Moscow, a day after France’s clash with Belgium in St. Petersburg.