And so after 28 years, England are in another World Cup semi final. This will be only the third time that the Three Lions have made it this far. Once, in 1990, they suffered penalty shootout heartache at the hands of West Germany. The other time, in 1966, Sir Alf Ramsay led his side to glory on home soil.
So which will it be for Gareth Southgate’s men in 2018? Their run to the final four of the World Cup has come as something of a surprise, but make no mistake, England deserve their place in the semi finals. Sure, the draw has fallen kindly for them. Sure, they could have faced stiffer opposition in the knockout rounds, but you can only beat what is in front of you and England have done that well.
They have exorcised some ghosts along the way. Their penalty shootout win over Colombia was their first ever at a World Cup. At the fourth attempt, having suffered painful exits at the hands of Argentina, Germany and Portugal, England finally broke through the mental block of a nation. Pundits blubbered in the studio at full time, the country celebration with more gusto than should meet a round of 16 win. But this was more than just a round of 16 win.
Then there was the routine win over Sweden in the quarter finals, in stark contrast to the stress experienced against Colombia. It might not have been obvious, but this was England getting over another mental block. Not so long ago, the quarter finals was deemed the Three Lions’ ceiling. By seeing off the Scandinavians 2-0, though, without much fuss at all, this England team smashed through that ceiling.
Croatia will provide an altogether different test. They have world class players like Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. They too have shown their mental fortitude in making it to the World Cup semi finals, coming through back-to-back penalty shootouts in the knockout rounds. These sort of opportunities are rare for Croatia too, with the country only ever making it this far at the World Cup once before (in 1998).
For England, though, this feels like a watershed moment in the country’s footballing history. The nation has fallen in love with his national team again. At a time of great division across the United Kingdom, at least one part has united behind one cause these past few weeks. There’s something to be said for that.
This Wednesday’s semi final presents England with a fork in the road. Head one way and the ghosts of past failures will return. Same Old England. Head the other way, though, and English football can finally proclaim to have changed. New England. This is a defining match in the history of the sport in the country. What happens on Wednesday will have repercussions for years, generations, even, to come.
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