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In like a lamb, England's lions emerge as unlikely World Cup contenders

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Monday, July 9, 2018 – Page B9

TORONTO -- England's favourite soccer theme song Three Lions - better known by its subtitle, Football's Coming Home - is bad.

Not bad in a to-each-his-own sort of way, but in an objective way. The singing is tuneless, the arrangements tinny and the production so awful it sounds as if they recorded it in a well.

The video is a particular aesthetic atrocity - three nitwits on a pan-Albion pub crawl looking twee and depressed by, of all things, soccer. It is so much a product of its time - the over-arnest mid-1990s - that it makes me ashamed to have lived through those years.

But the English have a famous affinity for ironical things. Football's Coming Home might be the most ironical of them all.

The title references Euro 1996, which was held in England.

That's the football that's coming home - a soccer tournament.

It has, over time, begun to mean the sport itself, as embodied by the Jules Rimet Trophy.

The Holy Grail is being returned to the game's birthplace.

Since no one considered that a genuine possibility - I mean, England, c'mon - the line became a nationwide inside joke and popular meme fodder.

British pundits can bring down a room just by dropping an "It's coming home" into any pregnant silence. It doesn't even need to make sense. It has become shorthand for quixotic endeavours and finding humour in disappointment.

Then Saturday happened. England ran lethargic Sweden off the park in a comprehensive victory. England is in the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time in 28 years, and the favourites in that game for the first time in recorded human history.

People are still saying, "It's coming home," but the nudgenudge is no longer implied.

Around the time Andrew Lloyd Webber was jumping on his drawing-room piano to do a vaudeville rendition - looking emotional, if not at all tired - you realized England's reticence had collapsed.

While knowing that to do so in England is fraught with unusual risk, the country has gone all in on soccer.

If the English lost their cool at home, the team members have thus far maintained theirs. Most of these players have no public personality. They are too young to have much history. As such, this is the most remote England team in eons. That's been the key.

England is the high-school prom king of international soccer - no one likes him much, but everyone knows all about him.

That's down to the global ubiquity of the Premier League. If you watch soccer, you watch the Premier League. If you watch the Premier League, you know England.

People with no patriotic skin in the game still have deep feelings about Paul Scholes (underrated), David Beckham (overrated) and Wayne Rooney (occasionally X-rated). Although few were rooting for them to do well, everyone in the world was invested in seeing how things turned out.

Knowing that was the case rotted successive teams from the inside-out. England went to every World Cup with an all-star squad that had never bothered figuring out how to play together.

The main idea seemed to be picking the most recognizable personnel, so that no one in charge could be accused of getting creative. The results were consistently disappointing (unless you aren't English, in which case they were consistently delightful).

This pattern wasn't ended by any competitive loss, but by one man's bizarre off-field goof-up. In 2016, then England manager Sam Allardyce was forced to resign after he was caught in a newspaper sting involving dodgy consulting fees. The new hiring order was squeaky clean rather than their usual - famous and afraid.

England under-21 boss Gareth Southgate was given the job on a trial period.

Southgate was cut differently than his predecessors. He didn't feed on attention. He didn't need to be the smartest person in every conversation. Most important, he didn't seem terrified at the prospect of losing the job.

Southgate had been a workman-like player, and was now a workman-like coach.

His most important decision was made long before this World Cup - that he would scorch the English roster of its "stars for the sake of stars" ethos. Under Southgate, players have been picked for compatibility, rather than brand recognition.

Southgate spent the months before Russia reminding people that this new England team was not designed to win now, but in two or four years' time. Expectations for England are never low, but this was the lowest they'd been in ages.

The average English fan was so beaten down that this radical new approach - leave the guys you're most familiar with at home; never talk about winning - seemed sensible. It's paid outrageous dividends in Russia.

Harry Maguire - who often appears to be a pylon painted to resemble a man when in the colours of his professional club, Leicester City - has been a revelation on defence.

Jordan Pickford - a screaming shrew who doesn't look much like a goalkeeper - has been the best netminder in the tournament.

Ashley Young - who spent years unable to get a game with Manchester United - has been a terror on the wing.

Unlike teams past - best known for huddling in a clump over the ball because everyone wanted to take the free kicks - this one is orderly.

It's not an exciting team. But the excitement provided by the Beckham/Rooney/Michael Owen teams was the brittle sort. Those squads were one error from implosion. When you think of England's brightest lights on the big stage, you will always picture Paul Gascoigne weeping in Italy in 1990, back when such a thing was not done.

This England team is too young, too callow and too ignorant of its own history to realize that the time they should have folded up is long past. It's been an odd blessing.

"At the moment, everyone is choosing to reflect on everything that has gone well and that is very nice," Southgate said a few days ago. "But I know that is not the real world."

It's such basic common sense, it could be mistaken for philosophy. It's also more applicable now than when he said it.

Before the game with Sweden, England was playing with house money. No one believed then, or would allow themselves to say it out loud if they did.

Now they believe. Wednesday's semi-final with Croatia is not the would-be-nice-to-win scenario they've enjoyed thus far. It's one they are expected to win.

It's yet to be seen if that new pressure has anything to do with soccer coming home. Each of the remaining countries - Croatia, Belgium and France - features more-established stars with more exposure to big-game pressure.

But, perhaps if England's team can maintain its innocence for one more week, it may yet trump the experience of its jaded followers.

Associated Graphic

England head coach Gareth Southgate sits before the team's quarter-final match against Sweden in Samara, Russia, on Saturday. Unlike his predecessors, Southgate was a workman-like player, and is now a workman-like coach.


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