“For many of you watching at home, this is the best footballing day of your life.”
It’s a bold move for a commentator to speak for the audience in such a sweeping manner. But when BBC commentator Guy Mowbray spoke of the significance of England’s quarterfinal clash with Sweden — with the Three Lions cruising at 2-0 and heading into the World Cup final four — he had a point.
It sounds hyperbolic, but England’s ascent into its first World Cup semifinal since 1990 is the biggest, if not the best, moment in the life of the continually disappointed modern Three Lions fan.
In case you’re new to the trials and tribulations of this team, there disappointingly predictable script when it comes to tournaments:
– qualify with a near-perfect record
– slowly crumble under the unbearable levels of pressure and media scrutiny in the weeks preceding tournament
– watch in despair as they meekly exit in the groups or Round of 16 stage, usually on penalties
– rinse, lather and repeat
In 2018, however, the script has been ripped up. Instead of demanding nothing less than a place in the final, English fans generally agreed that the quarterfinals were an appropriate target.
Instead of the British tabloid press assuming their usual role as saboteurs, they are playing darts with the England players in their harmonious and happy base camp.
And instead of caving under with the weight of a nation’s expectations, a group of high-quality Premier League stars has been able to flourish in a system that suits them. Gone are the days of lumping it forward and hoping. It’s all about playing it out from the back three with short passes, like most EPL stars do week-in, week-out at their day jobs.
Set pieces, set pieces, set pieces…
Harry Maguire heads home the opening goal of the match to put England up 1-0! pic.twitter.com/uGph264mnY
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 7, 2018
The Englishmen’s historic triumph over Sweden was the first time they have kept a clean sheet at the quarterfinal stage since 1966, the fateful year when Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy high at Wembley Stadium.
The win in Samara also came on the 28th anniversary of England’s third-place playoff defeat against eventual champion West Germany at the 1990 tournament, which proved to be the final game in charge for legendary coach Bobby Robson.
Sixteen members of England’s current squad weren’t even born when that game took place, and now they are guaranteed at least the same finish as that highly revered side.
Ironically, this success has come at a time when apathy levels surrounding the national team are at their peak.
England fans, who typically outnumber the opposition in the stadium of any major tournament game, have mostly chosen to stay at home. The traveling contingent were vastly outnumbered by Colombian, Belgian, Panamanian and Tunisian fans in their respective matches.
Undoubtedly, interest in the team will soar and every flight from London to Moscow will be packed from now until Wednesday, when England plays its semifinal at the Luzhniki Stadium. (Where many Chelsea and Manchester United fans may have already traveled anyway to watch a rain-soaked penalty shootout in the 2008 Champions League final.)
The national team supporters who have been reticent to part with their cash for a summer adventure to Russia will surely now realize that this is England’s best chance of World Cup glory in a generation.
In fact, England will never have a better chance to claim the biggest prize in the world’s favorite sport.
A path to the 2018 World Cup final has been carefully carved by skill, good luck and fate. In the group stage, the concerning prospect of getting a result against an in-form Belgium side was dissipated by wins over lesser opposition in the opening two games. Manager Gareth Southgate rested eight players against the Red Devils, with the apparent intention of securing second place in the group — and a spot in the “easier” half of the knockout draw.
That plan seemed like a gamble too far when Colombia equalized in injury time of their Round of 2016 bout, but few would argue that clashes with a resurgent Japan, five-time winners Brazil and the ebullient France were best avoided.
England’s fortunate path to the final is reminiscent to that taken by Germany in 2002. After an 8-0 mauling of Saudi Arabia, a draw with Ireland and a simple 2-0 win over Cameroon in the group stage, Die Mannschaft faced Paraguay, the USMNT and South Korea on the way to the final.
That was not a great Germany side — it crashed out of Euro 2004 two years later in such humiliating fashion that the national program was completely overhauled, culminating in a 10-year plan that delivered the 2014 World Cup title.
But that German team made the most of its luck, and England should do the same thing.
No English fan under the age of 28 will ever have seen their team go this deep at the World Cup — and an opportunity to “bring football home” will not be this straightforward ever again.
Ryan Bailey has covered soccer for Yahoo Sports since 2010, regularly providing insight on the beautiful game through his columns, interviews and video reports. Follow him on Twitter @RyanJayBailey.
More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
• England ushers Sweden out of World Cup to reach semis
• Sweden’s frustration, summed up by one photogenic fan
• McIntyre: Brazil’s World Cup misery continues in 2018
• Schaerlaeckens: Belgium finally overcomes inferiority complex
• Baker: This stadium has become a graveyard for World Cup favorites