Steeped in Soccer Heartbreak, England Holds Its Breath

Raised on 55 years of disappointment, English fans are daring to hope this might be their year for a major championship.

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LONDON — Football’s coming home, and England is rejoicing in spite of itself.

The country’s national soccer team still has one more big game to play before it reaches the European championship final next Sunday at Wembley Stadium in London. But after thrashing Ukraine in Rome last week, it is returning to Wembley on Wednesday to face Denmark in a wildly anticipated semifinal.

That alone seems like partial fulfillment of the team’s unofficial anthem, “Three Lions,” with its ever-hopeful promise that “football’s coming home.” The rub, of course, is that football hasn’t truly come home since England last won the World Cup in 1966.

After 55 years of losses, heartbreaking defeat is so deeply ingrained in the English psyche that betting on a cup is the ultimate triumph of hope over experience. Rooting for England is like rooting for baseball’s Chicago Cubs, whose championship drought extended more than a century before ending in 2016. Or the New York Jets, who last won the National Football League Championship in 1969, 52 years ago.

And yet, for England, which has bickered through four-and-a-half rancorous years of Brexit and anguished through 16 months of Covid, the inspiring run of its national team has been both a pick-me-up and a welcome change-of-subject for a country fed up of talking about politics and public health.

“There’s something in the air at the moment, even if it’s partly media generated,” said James Walvin, a historian at the University of York who wrote “The People’s Game,” about the history of soccer in England.

This national team, he said, is winning on and off the field — uncommonly likable and exuberantly representative of a country that is far more complex than the binary debates over Brexit would suggest.

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England’s players celebrating their third goal against Ukraine on Saturday, in Rome. Credit…Pool photo by Ettore Ferrari

“The team that won the World Cup in 1966 was entirely white,” Mr. Walvin said. “This team is a real cross-section of modern, urban, multiracial England. Many of these guys are millionaires, but they also do good things.”

Britain’s papers have been busy anointing a new cast of heroes. “Yes, We Kane,” said the Daily Mirror last Sunday, referring to England’s captain, Harry Kane, who played listlessly in the early games of the tournament before scoring a goal that eliminated Germany and exploding with a pair in the 4-0 victory over Ukraine.

“How to be a Gareth; why decent blokes are hot,” said the Times of London on its front page about England’s brainy, button-down manager, Gareth Southgate. The Sun combined excitement over the team’s success with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to throw off England’s remaining pandemic restrictions under the headline: “Free Lions” (the team’s nickname is the Three Lions).

Mr. Johnson, who is by his own admission not a soccer fan, has backed the team with the piety of the recently converted. “Come on, England!” he tweeted on Saturday, as he posed with thumbs up outside 10 Downing Street, standing on a giant red-and-white English flag, with its distinctive St. George’s Cross.

“So much for the Union,” grumbled Simon Jenkins, a columnist for The Guardian, referring, of course, to the United Kingdom. “Boris will milk it for all it is worth.”

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain during the match against Germany on June 29.Credit…10 Downing Street, via Reuters

Mr. Jenkins pointed out the evanescence of sports (a promising 18-year-old British tennis player, Emma Raducanu, came from nowhere to beguile crowds at Wimbledon before withdrawing from her fourth-round match on Tuesday with breathing problems). He also cautioned against drawing too much of a link between England’s sports successes and its politics, which remain stuck in a post-Brexit hangover.

Indeed, until its recent string of victories, some members of Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party had mainly viewed the England team as a pesky example of political correctness run amok. The players customarily kneel at the beginning of games to protest racial injustice — a gesture that drew veiled criticism from the home secretary, Priti Patel, when she declined to condemn some fans for booing them.

Marcus Rashford, a British-born Manchester United forward of Caribbean descent who has played off the bench for England, led a campaign that forced Mr. Johnson to reverse course on a plan to suspend free lunches for children of poor families during the pandemic.

“They’re part of a broader cultural war,” Professor Walvin said. “There is a right-wing Tory critique about criticizing anything English. But a young footballer had to point out to Johnson the moral obligation of feeding poor people.”

Mr. Southgate, the manager, offered his own subtle critique in a “Dear England” letter published on a sports website last month. While presenting himself as a patriotic defender of queen and country, he wrote that young people would inevitably have a different view than him of being English. And he defended the right of his players to fight against racial injustice.

“On this island, we have a desire to protect our values and traditions — as we should — but that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress,” Mr. Southgate wrote. “It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.”

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Players of England and Germany knelt to protest racial injustice before their match in London last week.Credit…Pool photo by John Sibley

First, though, the lads have to get past Denmark. A formidable team in ordinary times, it is playing with a sense of mission following a horrifying incident at the start of the tournament when one of its star players, Christian Eriksen, collapsed on the field in cardiac arrest. Doctors revived him with a defibrillator.

English fans can conjure up plenty of nightmare scenarios to snuff out this Cinderella run. David Hartrick, writing in The Guardian, recalled the dismal European championship of 1988 when an overly confident England lost every game.

“It’s not the despair,” he said, quoting the British actor John Cleese. “I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”

When Mr. Southgate was a player on the national team a quarter century ago, he missed a penalty kick that led to England’s defeat by Germany in the semifinals of the 1996 European championship.

This year, though, England sent Germany packing. In the delirious celebrations that followed, Jurgen Klinsmann, who played on the German squad in 1996 and is now a BBC commentator, summed up the stakes.

“This is England’s moment,” he said.

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