VOLGOGRAD, Russia — England made the error of playing creatively and gorgeously for the first 25 minutes Monday night, jeopardizing those still inclined to watch it with the calamity of hope, daunting especially in the case of children. Then it managed to rediscover its trademark World Cup fecklessness across the ensuing 65 minutes so as to foment the relief that can come with restoring expectations to desired lowness.
And then, in the first minute of added time in a very apparent 1-1 draw with Tunisia here along the Volga River, a 27-year-old from Ramsbottom sent a corner kick to the middle of the box, where a 25-year-old from Sheffield headed it leftward, where a 24-year-old star from Chingford headed it into the goal, whereupon that last guy, Harry Kane, scrambled madly into the corner, chased and then buried in a winning, appealing scrum of teammates.
Now, nobody knows much of what to think after this 2-1 win forged from Kieran Trippier’s corner off Harry Maguire’s head to Kane’s head, but there’s reason enough to go ahead with five of the more disturbing words in the language:
Keep an eye on England.
It’s still okay if it’s just one eye.
“It looked like it could have been one of them nights again,” Kane said, and then it didn’t.
Them nights have coursed through the young century, quadrennium upon quadrennium, until finally the chatter around England circa 2018 included that there had been less chatter, a scenario coaches in all sports have aimed to manufacture, even if not necessarily by losing to 340,000-strong Iceland in a Euro 2016 as did England. Granted, Tunisia joined a list of only seven England victims in five World Cups since 2002, alongside Slovenia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Denmark, Argentina (somehow) and Trinidad and Tobago (which at least the motherland can beat), with that last win coming largely because a 6-foot-6 English striker pulled himself upward with a defender’s dreadlocks in one of human history’s sadder occasions of gamesmanship. Ousting losses have greeted most any tangle with quality, including to Brazil (2002), Portugal (2006), Germany (2010), and the Italy-Uruguay in-group combination (2014).
By 2018, on a night with its share of both empty seats and Volgograd bugs, who visit dutifully and seemingly in trillions each June for a fortnight or so according to the locals, people among the 41,064 and beyond knew what to expect of England. Even after a strong qualifying campaign and a hopeful 47-year-old, first-World Cup manager in Gareth Southgate, it was the World Cup, so England would start off steeped in tepidity, then find its way toward further tepidity before closing tepidly. That would be against whomever, really, but in this case a Tunisia with a small population (11 million) and large ambitions (in its first World Cup in 12 years but its fifth in 40).
What a revelation, then, the opening minutes, when England kept prying open the Tunisian defense with gems such as Jordan Henderson’s shrewd ball from midfield over the top into threat territory, Dele Alli’s fantastic pass that made its way through four defenders at a time, and Ashley Young’s cross to the far right post that found an unmarked Jesse Lingard. Lingard muffed it, and none of those plays scored even as some should have, but one off a corner did, on 11 minutes. John Stones’s header met a sprawling save by Mouez Hassen, the Tunisian keeper who would leave early with a shoulder injury, but Kane stood right in front of Hassen and ushered in the follow.
“He is the optimum striker-scorer,” Tunisia manager Nabil Maaloul said of the two-goal Kane, both a World Cup debutant and a captain at that.
“We got into the game quickly,” Kane said.
The World Cup is here. Want smart analysis, opinions, viewing guides and more? Sign up for our month-long newsletter. Every match day through the final July 15.
Even as the sight of England felt young and zestful and just different, old themes got a ride onto the pitch on 33 minutes, when defender Kyle Walker found himself facing his own goal somehow, so that Fakhreddine Ben Youssef could slam into the back of him, so that Walker’s no-look stiff-arm of Ben Youssef could constitute a penalty, if a sketchy one, so that Ferjani Sassi could score it just past the fingers of goalkeeper Jordan Pickford even as Pickford dove accurately to his right.
The second half occurred, and seemed it would do little more than occur, even given the tireless drumbeat and chant from the England section. It did not appear that Kane would end up saying, “It felt great out there,” and, “I think the most (important) is we’re proud of each other,” and, “We never panicked,” and, “We never looked like conceding another one, which is important.” It did not appear that Southgate would end up saying, “I think we had leaders on the field that kept delivering the right messages,” and, “What pleased me is there’s been a long period of work gone in … and if you don’t get the win, even if you get some things right, that can breed a little bit of doubt … and the next four or five days can be a little bit uncomfortable for people.”
Yet that’s what they said, after that scrum in the corner that somehow looked so not-England with its calibrated heartbeats, and after the saddening of the Tunisian faces that had lent such verve to the walk toward the stadium, and after that English drumbeat and chant carried on well after the whistle until it seemed it would go on into the night, lodging in the eardrum’s memory.
England will play Panama next, come Sunday, and one might want to watch, even if so often that has been a lousy thing to say to somebody.
— Chuck Culpepper
Tunisia: vs. Belgium in Moscow, June 23, 8 a.m.
England: vs. Panama in Nizhny Novgorod, June 24, 8 a.m.
Harry Kane does it again!
In stoppage time, nonetheless. Kane was left wide open and headed the ball in at close range.
And the Three Lions come out on top.
England subs again…
Dele Alli comes out for Ruben Loftus-Cheek, but as commentators on FS1 have been pondering, England may be wishing they had more of a fiery playmaker at the moment. Jack Wilshere, left of the national team this time around, has been a popular topic of conversation.
England, looking to crack Tunisia’s defense, replaces Sterling with Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford.
Similar start for England
They’re still pushing the pace and threatening, but Tunisia is sitting back in their defensive end a little bit and making things a trifle harder for the Three Lions. Welcome to stalemate.
Halftime: Tunisia 1, England 1
We’re clipping along at quite a pace so far, thanks in large part to England’s urgent attack. Harry Kane put England up early and the Three Lions had myriad missed opportunities after that, but instead Kyle Walker’s gaffe gave Tunisia a chance to pull even.
England has 12 shots to Tunisia’s 4 and is possessing the ball 60 percent of the time. They’ll need to be a bit more precise in the second half.
Missed opportunities abound for England
Every one of England’s many set pieces have put the Three Lions in agonizingly good position to score, including Kieran Trippier’s, which got to Jesse Lingard, who got off a good shot that was deflected out of bounds for a corner kick.
Then there was this:
On a penalty kick, brought about when Kyle Walker pulled down Fakhreddine Ben Youssef. There was a VAR check but the decision was confirmed. Ferjani Sassi shoots low and to the right, out of England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford’s reach.
Tunisia’s keeper comes out
The Eagles of Carthage are forced to make an early change when starting keeper Mouez Hassen, who looked to have banged his left shoulder on the turf in a hard fall earlier, goes down again. After just 14 minutes, he leaves the field in tears. Farouk Ben Mustapha replaces him in goal.
Goal from Harry Kane!
England’s captain, in great position in front of the keeper, taps an easy one in to score his first career World Cup goal.
Solid start for the Three Lions
England is pressing at every opportunity — both Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard have had good looks already (although Sterling’s wouldn’t have counted).
According to the FS1 broadcast, Tunisia fans outnumber England fans in Volgograd Arena by about 10,000 to 2,000, which does seem apt for supporters of a team that hasn’t been in the World Cup for 12 years. But, 2,000 England fans is far lower a number than was expected in Russia. Poor ticket sales are being blamed on everything from low expectations for this England team to the country’s souring relations with Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Lords of the flies
As if England fans needed more ammunition for jokes about their national team being plagued, swarms of flying insects have descended upon Volgograd. They could make things quite uncomfortable for those on the pitch and in the arena Monday night.
Apparently this is a recurring issue in Volgograd, a southwestern city that is set to host four group stage matches. Helicopters were deployed days ago to spray pesticide over the area surrounding the arena, including marshlands on the outskirts of the Volga river, which runs through the city. But the insects have still been so bad that one British news channel decided to cancel a series of live interviews planned in front of England’s hotel.
“They are on your face, stick to your lips, get inside your nostrils, your ears and your hair,” BBC Sport reporter Natalie Pirks told the BBC. “I’ve had to debug myself at bedtime as you find dead ones you’ve splatted in the strangest of places.”
- Last World Cup showing: Group stage, 2006.
- Best finish: Tunisia has never made it out of the group stage. Its best showing was in 1978, a 1-1-1 performance.
- Notable: Tunisia became the first African country to win a World Cup match when it beat Mexico in its opening game in Argentina in 1978. It hasn’t won a match since.
- FIFA world ranking: 21. ELO world ranking: 48.
- Last World Cup showing: Group stage, 2014.
- Best finish: Champions in 1966, when England was the World Cup host.
- Notable: England is one of just eight countries to win the World Cup. The others are Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay, Spain and France.
- FIFA world ranking: 12. ELO world ranking: 7.
Players to Watch
For England, all eyes are bound to be on 24-year-old captain Harry Kane, who will lead the attack but has yet to score in tournament soccer. The striker put up 30 goals for Tottenham Hotspur this season, ranking second in the Premier League after Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, and will work in tandem with forward Raheem Sterling, the team lightning rod, at least when it comes to the media. Sterling, England’s No. 10, impressed when he went to his first World Cup at 19 and has since become a well-rounded attacker with Premier League champion Manchester City, tallying 23 goals and 17 assists this season. Pictures of an old tattoo — an AK-47 that’s a tribute to his father, a victim of gun violence — stirred up controversy in the days before the World Cup, but Sterling is used to the attention by now.
Tunisia, on the other hand, is essentially a team without stars after the loss of Msakni. Wahbi Khazri is a talented attacking midfielder who can cause trouble in set pieces and will be tasked with creating most of Tunisia’s chances. Ferjani Sassi, Mohamed Amine Ben Amor and Ghaylen Chaaleli anchor a capable midfield. — Ava Wallace
Read more about the World Cup: