The ‘it,’ of course, is the World Cup trophy, and it is now closer than it has been in a generation to coming back to England: home to soccer’s rules, to its best professional league, and to important parts of the game’s history.
For a week now, England fans worldwide have clung to a new slogan “It’s coming home” — as a rallying cry for their desire to claim a second World Cup title, and the nation’s first since 1966.
On the strength of Maguire’s first-half head and Alli’s after the break, they are two victories away. England’s path next heads to Moscow, where it will play the Russia-Croatia survivor on Wednesday at the Luzhniki Stadium. If that goes well, they’ll return four days later for the final.
“We’re not the finished article,” England’s manager, Gareth Southgate, said. “We don’t have renowned, world-class players yet, but we have lots of good, young players who are showing on a world stage that they’re prepared to be brave with the ball, try to play the right way and have showed some resilience over the last few weeks.”
The England fan base in recent days has been rallying around a catchphrase — “It’s coming home” — that seemed at first to be cried out with a tinge of irony. It was the product of a perspective established and hardened through years of disappointment at the World Cup; now, increasingly, the slogan appears to harbour a sense of earnest expectation.
More and more people have jumped on the bandwagon, succumbing to the team’s charms.
The spiritual figurehead of the team in many ways has been Southgate, a former England player whose self-effacing enthusiasm has become central to the group’s appeal. With a subtle knack for storytelling, he has done as much as any columnist to build a narrative about his players as lovable underdogs.
About their ambition to reach the final, rather than to play a third-place match after losing in the semifinals, Southgate said: “We spoke to the players today that none of us fancied going home. We’ve got to be here for another week, so it’s up to us the games we play in.”
And asked about uniting their country during a period of political division, he said: “All these players come from different parts of the country, and there will be youngsters watching at home from the areas that they come from who they’ll be inspiring at this moment, and that is of course even more powerful than what we’re doing with our results.”
The road to the final has looked surprisingly open for England for a while now, thanks at first to an easy group stage and now because of a series of fortuitous results in other games. England, with a different series of outcomes, could have faced Brazil or Germany in the quarterfinals and Spain in the next round.
For all the perverse joy that neutral fans may have found in seeing the fall of the tournament’s traditional titans, it created the possibility for more games like the one on Saturday — a scrappy affair, with fewer dimensions. Neutral fans looking for an entertaining game here never stood a chance.
The Swedes’ approach to this match threw a wet blanket over whatever possibility the occasion might have otherwise presented. On defense, they set up deeply and densely inside their own half, allowing England space to move outside on the wings but not much room to burrow through. The Swedes probed forward infrequently, and in straight lines.
Sweden had advanced this far by playing this way, engineering soul-sucking, if ultimately praiseworthy, victories over South Korea and Mexico in the group stage and against Switzerland in the round of 16. “I respect Sweden’s style of play,” Mexico’s manager, Juan Carlos Osorio, had said after his team’s 3-0 loss, “but I don’t agree with it.”
And England’s goals on Saturday, one in each half, seemed to do little to get Sweden to change its approach.
The first goal came in the 30th minute, when Ashley Young floated a corner kick from the left side, spinning the ball toward the penalty spot, where Harry Maguire rose over the back of Sweden’s Emil Forsberg and thumped a header into the left corner of the goal. It was England’s 10th goal of the tournament, and its eighth from a set piece.
England struck again in the 59th minute, when a looping cross from Jesse Lingard, and a lapse in defense from Sweden, released Dele Alli alone on the left post to deposit another header into the net.
“They’re heavy, forceful, well organized,” Sweden’s manager, Janne Andersson, said of England. “It’s a good football team. I believe they are perfectly able to go all the way.”
Sweden’s two best opportunities to score were denied by goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who was named the man of the counterpart for his endeavors.
He made his first astounding recovery just minutes into the second half, plunging at full stretch toward the left post to occupy a risky headed shot from forward Marcus Berg. The other came minutes after England’s second objective, when Pickford spread himself out once more, this opportunity on his right side, to bat away a low, hard shot from Viktor Claesson.
“Nothing flusters me,” Pickford said in regards to the amusement’s high stakes. “The pitch is continually going to be similar lines. It’s a similar objective tallness. It’s simply the sport of football.”
In the last snapshots of damage time, the England fans combined to sing “God Save the Queen,” despite the fact that the festivals on the field at the shriek were generally quelled.