Football isn’t coming home just yet. But a win for England against Sweden will signal that it’s well on the way.
Gareth Southgate is about as level-headed as managers come, but the England coach knows his young team have a monumental opportunity to make the World Cup final.
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The Three Lions, the youngest team left in the competition, face Sweden in Samara on Saturday and if they win they’ll face either Russia or Croatia in the semifinals.
Southgate acknowledged that England are on the kind side of the bracket but isn’t underestimating Sweden’s veteran squad at all.
“It’s a great opportunity, and although our team will be individually better in two years, we might not have this opportunity again,” Southgate said. “We have huge respect for Sweden. They are a team that I think in the past have been underestimated – we won’t make that mistake. Our players come from the same background as their players. We shouldn’t get carried away with ourselves being better than Sweden. They are older, more experienced, and have a better tournament record than us.”
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England’s first big test of the World Cup, their Round of 16 penalty shootout win against Colombia on Tuesday, answered plenty of questions about the mentality of this young squad.
Colombia tried every trick in the book but Harry Kane scored (of course), England kept their cool and they rallied after a 93rd-minute equalizer to exorcise their penalty kick demons from major tournaments in the past.
This truly feels like a monumental moment for the English national team, with this likeable squad hungry to achieve and capable of fine attacking, flowing play.
As memes and videos do the rounds on social media, for the first time in what feels like a long time there is positivity around the English national team. There’s no more moaning about not beating minnows 8-0 in qualifying games, no more complaining about superstars not caring about wearing the Three Lions on their shirt.
That is one of the nicest surprises. There are no egos in this team.
This is a squad Southgate has said perfectly represents the modern day society in England as fans back home gather in pubs and parks together to roar on a team they expected very little from, given the amount of shocking defeats in the past.
“We are a team with our diversity and with our youth that represents modern England,” Southgate said. “In England we’ve spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is and I think as a team we represent that modern identity, and hopefully people can connect with us.”
England’s players now have that connection with its fans thanks to an openness with media outlets, Southgate encouraging his players to speak out and Kane leading a new generation by example.
That ‘golden generation’ came and went without a trip to the semifinals of a major tournament but now this team, who have captured the imagination of their nation along with their amiable leader Southgate, have the chance to do what the likes of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lamprd and Wayne Rooney couldn’t.
“We are based on working hard for each other, we don’t carry anybody, they all pressed, they all have good organisation and they are prepared to graft and dig in for each other,” Southgate said. “I know those are slightly old-fashioned qualities but we don’t have the right to just stroll around a pitch. We play with character and I love that about them.”
For England the equation is now simple.
Win and they’ll exceed expectations and the wave of euphoria surrounding the team not just in England but around the globe will continue to the semifinals and beyond. “Football’s Coming Home” will dominate the minds of every Englishman until at least next week.
Lose and everyone will lament them stumbling at a key moment once again, as England, whether they like it or not, will be expected to beat Sweden and then reach the final.
The time has arrived for this young England side to become the darlings of the tournament as they try to bring football home.