It may have taken 55 years — and 120 nerve-fraying minutes at Wembley — but Harry Kane’s goal in the 104th minute held as the difference for a delirious home crowd of about 67,000.
Outside Wembley — all over England — fans erupted in elation and relief after Kane scored on his own rebound after Danish keeper Kasper Schmeichel stopped his strike from the penalty spot.
The ITV announcer shouted out that viewers should call their bosses and tell them they won’t be at work in the morning.
Gary Lineker, a soccer legend turned broadcaster, tweeted, “Football: there’s nothing like it. One minute it rips you apart, the next it sends you into orbit.”
England is a soccer-mad nation. This is the country that, in the 19th century, codified the rules of the game, known almost exclusively as football here. It’s also home to the Premier League, the world’s most famous domestic circuit. And yet, any feelings of English exceptionalism are thwarted, quite rightly, by the fact that England usually flops in major international tournaments.
But something rather unusual is happening during the European Championship. The English national team is thriving.
After thrashing Ukraine, 4-0, in the quarterfinals, England bested Denmark on Wednesday in nerve-racking semifinal played in front of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Prince William, and a crowd on edge.
The country is utterly obsessed. Ahead of Wednesday night’s match, the most pressing issue for many in the nation wasn’t the delta variant of the coronavirus, the rising case numbers or the debate over whether to keep mask-wearing in place; it was what kind of starting lineup England should deploy against Denmark, a nation whose team has rallied after midfielder Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest during its opening match.
There are other signs. Newspapers are running live blogs about soccer on days when there aren’t any soccer matches. England flags are hanging in windows. Larry, the Downing Street cat, apparently has views.
The Twitterati is imagining what England Manager Gareth Southgate, who has a kind of schoolteacher vibe and is apparently the “ultimate middle-aged crush,” would do for them.
And everyone is singing — or playing, wearing scarlet tunics and tall bearskin hats — “football’s coming home” or “it’s coming home” a refrain from a hit song with seemingly inexhaustible appeal.
In addition to the enthusiasm, the anticipation, the inevitable buildup, there is a belief there is also something else going on.
Barney Ronay, chief sportswriter for the Guardian, said that the Three Lions have “distanced themselves from their traditional fan base a little bit” by kneeling before matches in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
The action has prompted booing and whistling from some fans. “But the upside of that is the players seem far more engaged with what they’re doing,” Ronay said. “They’re [an] incredibly eloquent, likable, nice bunch of young men with a manager who often sounds like the most sensible person left in the country.”
Southgate recently wrote a “Dear England,” letter to the country, in which he discussed English identity and the importance of speaking out on equality, inclusivity and racial injustice.
Paul Hayward, a British journalist who is writing a 150-year biography of England’s national team, said this team has taken on an important role beyond football. He said Southgate has become a kind of figurehead representing “benign patriotism” in England, which is a kind of “haven” for many following the cultural conflicts amplified by Brexit.
Southgate also has challenged the narrative that a trail of tears always follows England in major tournaments. He previously led the squad to the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup.
This team is “sweeping away this idea that it always goes wrong,” Hayward said. That belief has become exclusive to English soccer in major tournaments. England, and Britain, have enjoyed international success in tennis, cricket and rugby. But soccer has simply been “55 years of hurt.” Added Hayward: “[It’s] almost written into the English way of thinking that whatever you did in a tournament, it was just a matter of time before it went wrong again.”
Of course, there is still one more game to go. But this team has already shown itself to be different from its predecessors.
England has conceded only one goal in the entire tournament. Before defeating Ukraine, England beat old rival Germany, the first time the Three Lions have done so in a knockout game since 1966.
The Daily Express reassured a startled nation with its front-page headline: “No, it wasn’t a dream.”
One of the many changes Southgate has introduced is a style of possession football, similar to the other mainstream European soccer powers. Hayward also said the manager has been blessed with a generation of young talent nurtured through Premier League academies.
Meanwhile, the rest of the nation is reveling in the victory by spontaneously breaking out into song. If victory could be achieved by the sheer volume of voices singing the anthem on the street — or citing it on social media — then it would already be in the bag.
The immortal anthem — officially titled the “Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home)” — is a song by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds, an indie rock band. Baddiel, a comedian and presenter, explained in an interview with The Washington Post that the song is about “loss and vulnerability. … It’s about seeing this potential in the distance.”
It was written in 1996 to mark England hosting the European Championship. The phrase “football is coming home” is a riff off the marketing slogan at the time, “football comes home,” in reference to England’s hosting duties.
The song is sometimes sung at the end of games, in its melancholic entirety, which begins with spoken word: “I think it’s bad news for the English game. We’re not creative enough, and we’re not positive enough.”
Other times, fans simply sing the refrain over and over, like a mantra. But if done in a triumphalist kind of way, the chant doesn’t reflect the spirit in which the song was written, Baddiel said. “If you listen to all the lyrics, it’s a song about magical thinking and hope and vulnerability,” he said.
The song has been going strong for 25 years, and Baddiel said that during major tournaments he’s often spotted by fans, even when he’s simply walking down the street. “Even with a mask on, people will start shouting at me, in a very nice way, ‘Is football coming home?’ ”
So, er, is football coming home?
“I don’t even like talking about that,” Baddiel said. “That’s why we wrote that song, because we don’t believe in the idea of a definite optimistic future.”
With one more win, such caution might become a thing of the past.