And, breathe. It was tight, slow-burn and even a little angsty at times. But as the final whistle blew a great rolling cheer came crackling around Wembley’s vast open tiers from a 18,497 crowd drunk on sun, drunk on England’s 1-0 defeat of Croatia and also, it must be said, drunk.
At the end of which England’s men have made a surefooted start to their Euro 2020 campaign, beating the most dangerous opponents in their group with strength in reserve and knots in the team still to be untangled.
Uefa and the English Football Association will be heartened by the efficient path cut through the logistical nightmare of tournament football in the time of plague.
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Mainly, though, this felt like a kind of coming out, something sweaty, boisterous and agreeably human after the months of seclusion.
At the end England’s players returned for a strolling lap of the ground, clapping the people in the seats – a grateful, gentle kind of applause, that drew a bellicose cheer from the flag-draped end behind the Croatia goal.
The European Championship is the third biggest global sporting event, behind only the Olympics and the World Cup – hence the pitch-side adverts for those renowned footballing “partners” TikTok, Gazprom and the rest. But in those moments there was a reminder of the more minute, familial aspects of sport as the players waved to friends and relatives in the stands.
Babies were waved, small children hoist. The manager, Gareth Southgate, confined himself to courtly handshakes, and a moment of huddled joy with his staff. But England are under way. And while it is always a mistake to expect too much of a sport that is basically a series of collisions dressed up in a flag and retailed for all it’s worth, this really is a likeable group of young English footballers. The weather is set fair. Welcome, with all due caveats and fingers crossed, to the summer of Gareth.
The new-build mini-city around the stadium had been soggy and woozy with summer heat from mid-morning. A red and white chequerboard of Croats sang and marched and appeared, quite rightly, intent on maintaining their hydration at all times. Passers-by stopped to stare. Uniformed volunteers scuttled and pointed and eased the pinch-points. “Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home” rang around every corner, but this is home, or somewhere that might start to feel like it again soon. The whole capital seemed to be blinking in the sun, reduced to a state of double-take by all this colour and light.
The pitch was a beautiful spectacle, tournament stripes cut into the lime green turf, the air in the gods shimmering. England’s players emerged to the strains of 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’re overplayed. Maybe it’s the melancholy, maybe it’s the hope. At Wembley that old plonky dirge felt like a warm draft of something reviving.
The anthems were thunderously received, God Save The Queen plus social distancing leaving just enough room for the classic arms-spread gesture from which this must be sung, as though frozen in the Y of the YMCA. The knee was taken to a swell of booing from one end, quickly drowned out by applause and cheers. There was a moment of familiar shamelessness last week as Boris Johnson called, with a wink, for England’s fans to show a little respect for the gesture. It is to be hoped Johnson’s sudden, and no doubt heartfelt, concern can now be extended into undoing his own role in creating such division in the first place.
England started smartly, the Declan Rice-Kalvin Phillips double-pivot in midfield, an object of concern for some who yearn for a more cavalier basic setup, functioning well early on. But with 20 minutes gone Southgate was pacing his touchline, shirtsleeved but still sombre-suited, resembling as ever a careworn off-duty detective about to give a heartwarming speech at a summer wedding.
England created openings, chances, glimpses. But Croatia were still compact and unhurried. There were more glimpses of the great Luka Modric, a beautifully balanced figure with a unique and oddly sensual relationship with the ball. Modric is approaching his 36th birthday. He no longer looks like small boy dressed up as a witch. He looks like a small boy’s dad also dressed up a witch. At half-time, with the score 0-0, there was a first little wash of anxiety over the home support.
With 56 minutes gone England abruptly woke up. It will give Southgate immense pleasure that the two players who made England’s opening goal of this tournament were two he was under some public pressure to leave out.
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Phillips, of Leeds, was part of that two-man midfield pivot, evidence, some would, say of Southgate’s roundhead tendencies. But he played brilliantly and also made England’s goal here with a drive inside and the perfect nudged pass into the run of Raheem Sterling.
Sterling had read the moment, and smashed the ball into the middle of the goal as Croatia’s Dominik Livakovic dived out of the way. Sterling still looked rusty and off in his touch at Wembley. But he is simply relentless, entirely unafraid, always ready for more. The sight of England’s upright, occasionally embattled No 10 being mobbed at the touchline, drawing great rolling waves of England support down from the upper tiers, was agreeably cathartic.
He is also a local lad. Sterling grew up playing games on asphalt and AstroTurf in the shadow of Wembley. At times in the past six months he has looked like a player paddling for the end of the swimming pool, a footballer for whom football has become a painful thing, the bubble-bound grind a little too much. At Wembley that goal, the day, the lap at the end felt like a little taste of something lifting.