Aand breathe. It was tight, slow burning, and even a little angst at times. But as the final whistle sounded, a great cheer echoed around the vast open bleachers of Wembley from a crowd of 18,497 sun-drunken drunk with England’s 1-0 defeat to Croatia and also, he must be said, drunk.
At the end of which the men of England started their Euro 2020 campaign on the right foot, beating the most dangerous opponents in their group with strength in reserve and knots in the team yet to be unraveled.
UEFA and the English Football Association will be encouraged by the efficient path mapped out through the logistical nightmare of football tournaments in the days of the plague.
But most of all, it felt like a kind of coming out, something sweaty, noisy and pleasantly human after the months in seclusion.
At the end, the English players returned for a tour of the pitch, applauding the people in the seats – a kind of grateful and gentle applause, which drew a belligerent cheer from the draped end of the flag behind Croatia’s goal. .
The European Championship is the third biggest sporting event in the world, behind the Olympics and the World Cup – hence the on-pitch advertisements for these renowned football “partners” TikTok, Gazprom and others. But at those times, there was a reminder of the smaller, more familiar aspects of the sport as players greeted their friends and loved ones from the stands.
The babies have been stirred, the little children are hoisted up. Manager Gareth Southgate limited himself to courteous handshakes and a moment of curled up glee with his staff. But England is on the move. And while it is always a mistake to expect too much of a sport which is essentially a series of flag-dressed, retail crashes, this is a truly sympathetic group of young English footballers. The weather is fine. Welcome, with all caveats and fingers crossed, to Gareth’s summer.
The newly built mini-city around the stadium was soggy and dizzy in the mid-morning summer heat. A red and white Croatian checkerboard sang and paraded and appeared, and rightly so, determined to maintain their hydration at all times. Passers-by stopped to watch. Uniformed volunteers rushed over, pointed and eased the pinch points. “Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home” was ringing around every corner, but it’s my home, or somewhere that might soon start feeling that way again. The whole capital seemed to flash in the sun, reduced to a state of double take by all this color and this light.
The pitch was a beautiful sight, tournament stripes carved into the lime green grass, the air of the gods glistening. The English players have emerged under pressure from the Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home). Like Christmas carols or wedding hymns, some songs never lose their emotional trigger, no matter how many times they are overplayed. Maybe it’s melancholy, maybe it’s hope. At Wembley, that old funeral song was like a draft of warm air from something coming back to life.
The hymns were received with thunder, God Save The Queen plus social distancing leaving just enough room for the classic outstretched arm gesture from which this is to be sung, as frozen in the Y of the YMCA. The knee was taken in a swell of boos from one end, quickly drowned out to applause and cheers. There was a moment of familiar shamelessness last week when Boris Johnson winked at England fans to show some respect for the gesture. Hopefully, Johnson’s sudden and undoubtedly sincere concern can now extend to undoing his own role in creating such a division in the first place.
England started smart, double pivot Declan Rice-Kalvin Phillips in midfield, a matter of concern for some who aspire to a more cavalier base setup, performing well from the start. But with 20 minutes up, Southgate was pacing his sideline, shirt sleeves but still in dark suits, looking more like a carefree detective on leave than ever about to give a heartwarming speech at a summer wedding.
England created openings, chances, glimpses. But Croatia was still compact and unhurried. There were more glimpses of the tall Luka Modric, a beautifully balanced figure with a unique and oddly sultry relationship with the ball. Modric is approaching his 36th birthday. He no longer looks like a little boy dressed as a witch. He looks like the father of a little boy who also dressed a witch. At half-time, with the score 0-0, there was a first small wave of anxiety about staying at home.
With 56 minutes gone, England suddenly woke up. It will be a great pleasure for Southgate that the two players who have scored England’s first goal of this tournament are both that he has been pressured by the public to exclude them.
Phillips, of Leeds, was part of that two-way midfielder pivot, some would say proof of Southgate’s round-headed tendencies. But he played brilliantly and also scored England’s goal here with indoor training and a perfect assist in Raheem Sterling’s run.
Sterling had read the moment and smashed the ball in the middle of the goal as Croatia’s Dominik Livakovic dove out of the way. Sterling still looked rusty and off in his contact at Wembley. But he’s just relentless, fearless, always ready to do more. The sight of England standing, at times besieged, being assaulted on the sideline, drawing large waves of English support from the upper stands, was pleasantly cathartic.
He’s also a local boy. Sterling grew up playing asphalt and AstroTurf games in the shadow of Wembley. At times over the past six months he has looked like a player paddling towards the bottom of the pool, a footballer for whom football has become a painful thing, the grind related to the bubble a little too much. At Wembley, that goal, the day, the ride at the end felt like a little taste of something uplifting.