“Football. There is nothing like it. Nothing.”

By Will Bloor

I’m sat in a Slovenian pub in a small town called Bled- one of the few places showing the game. We sit opposite a small group of English fans. It’s silent. We haven’t spoken to them but we know we share the same desperation; the same desire. Eric Dier steps up to take the penalty.

Goal.

Almost instantly, beers are thrown everywhere. I’m hugging a stranger in a retro England shirt.  We all start screaming “it’s coming home!” The Slovenian waitresses film us on their phones. We were strangers to each other two minutes ago. Not anymore.

A game where 11 men kick a ball about had the power to turn a room full of strangers into friends and ignite the hopes of a nation.

“Football. There is nothing like it. Nothing.” Gary Lineker’s tweet after England’s emphatic penalty shootout win over Columbia in the last 16 epitomised what I felt that night. A game where 11 people kick a ball about had the power to turn a room full of strangers into friends and ignite the hopes of a nation.

The 2018 World Cup in Russia will forever be remembered as a turning point for our men’s national team.

Where once English footballers were looked upon with disdain, contempt and misplaced hopes, this team will be remembered as the one which brought a sense of pride and class back to our game.

Under the deft management of Gareth Southgate, England was transformed both on and off the field. Farcical tactics and squad selections were replaced with a clear game plan of possession-based football, grounded in the spine of the outstanding Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire, John Stones, Jordan Henderson and top goalscorer and captain Harry Kane.

Football. There is nothing like it. Nothing. Gary Lineker

In turn, questionable attitudes were superseded by an ethos of hard work and cool-headedness. This undoubtedly stood out during the Columbia game where, despite constant provocations and attempts by the South Americans to antagonise England’s players, the squad maintained decorum and continued with their game plan.

All this and more provided a potent recipe for the men’s team to reach their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years.

Meanwhile, off the field, the media and fans were finally given the chance to really connect with a side that, for the first time in my lifetime, seemed unified despite the club loyalties that have so often divided squads in the past. They seemed far removed from the prima-donna caricatures of earlier times.

‘Soccer has united a country that politics is doing its best to divide.’

In particular, the openness of several members of the squad to talk about personal issues allowed reporters and fans alike to see this team as a group of honest, hard-working players. A prime example of this is Danny Rose’s frank discussion of his depression.

In the wake of chaos in Westminster as Brexit again taints national politics, England’s incredible World Cup run brought an aura of unity and togetherness that has for so long eluded our participation in international tournaments.

As the New Republic put it the day before that fateful semi-final loss to Croatia: “Soccer has united a country that politics is doing its best to divide.”

Nonetheless, the ecstatic scenes of beers being launched into the air and tumultuous chants of “it’s coming home” were inevitably taken too far by a minority of fans. The scenes in Nottingham after England’s defeat of Sweden, which saw several arrests for public order offences, showed that perhaps the vestiges of the problem with English fans remain.

However, compared to the scenes of Euro 2016 which saw English fans involved in large-scale violent clashes with French police, there has clearly been an improvement in how supporters conduct themselves in the wake of national tournaments.

It would be a sterling sign of this tournament’s legacy if the same level of support could be reciprocated towards the female squad and not packed away until 2022.

What must not be forgotten is that, whilst the men’s squad has undoubtedly provided a beacon of hope at this World Cup, there is also much to look forward to with regards to our female squad.

Much was made of the false statement that this was the first time an England squad had reached a World Cup semi-final when, in fact, the women’s national team were semi-finalists in 2015. With the Women’s World Cup in France in 2019 just around the corner, it would be a sterling sign of this tournament’s legacy if the same level of support could be reciprocated towards the female squad and not packed away until 2022.

By and large, as the ecstasy of this truly remarkable World Cup begins to fade into memory, England fans everywhere can be proud of what the men’s national side has done for the game in this country.

Where once World Cups in England were remembered for their drama off the pitch and disappointment on it, Russia 2018 has reminded us that there is perhaps more to look forward to than more years of hurt.

Football may not have come home in the end, but that feeling of belief that our national game can do so much more than bring disappointment and division definitely did, and hopefully it is here to stay.

Photograph: England national team for Russia 2018 via Creative Commons

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