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England's New Three Lions Appear to Be a Different Animal at This World Cup

The opposition so far has been light, but nevertheless, Gareth Southgate's rejuvenated England side does not resemble anything like its underachieving predecessors and offers more substance than star power.

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — After each goal, “Three Lions”—the 1990s theme song most people identify by the catchy “football’s coming home” chorus—played inside the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. And England scored so often in the first half here against Panama, that it became the looping and appropriate soundtrack to an emphatic 6-1 World Cup rout.

The win was fueled by a Harry Kane hat trick, and it clinched a round-of-16 berth for England (2-0-0). It’ll face fellow qualifiers Belgium (2-0-0) for first place in Group G next Thursday in Kaliningrad. And the song was a fitting tribute to that accomplishment. At its core, “Three Lions” is about pride and hope in the face of suffering (often self-inflicted). And this young England team, renewed under manager Gareth Southgate, has offered reason for both.

“History is not the most important thing for this team. They have the opportunity to make their own history,” Southgate said ahead of a win that did exactly that. “They’re a young team that’s going to get better and better. I really enjoy working with all of them, and I’m intrigued to see how far they can go.”

England still isn’t likely to bring the trophy home. They’re not in the same class as the World Cup favorites, and the level of opposition so far has been light. But where past England sides have been conflicted on the inside and overhyped (or overly criticized) from the outside, this squad represents a refreshing approach all around, as well as a welcome break from the past. Whatever the outcome, results like Tuesday’s demonstrate that these Three Lions may be a different sort of animal. There’s less star power, but perhaps more substance.

“Three Lions” was released to herald England’s hosting of Euro ‘96, from which the namesake national team was knocked out on penalties (of course) by Germany (of course). For a modest ditty penned by a Britpop musician and a couple of comedians, “Three Lions” did a pretty good job of laying out England’s twisted football psyche.

“They just know, they're so sure, that England's gonna throw it away,” the song goes. “But I know they can play. … Thirty years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming.

“Football’s coming home.”

So it’s become iconic. Every two summers (barring the likes of 1994 or 2008), England fans careen between the pride and promise born from their 1966 World Cup title—not to mention its role as the birthplace of the global game—and excruciating failure in every competition since. No one has staked a claim to the confusing, self-defeating space between hype and entitlement, and then skepticism and resignation, like the English.

Lately, the trajectory has been negative. Following the failure of a golden generation that should’ve done so much better in 2006, England won just one game combined at the ’10 and ’14 World Cups. Then at Euro 2016, it was knocked out in the second round by Iceland. That result highlighted what a cohesive, humble team can accomplish, and England was always tarred (or behaved) as the opposite.

So Southgate, who missed his penalty kick at Euro ’96, has gone for a clean break. He’s the first native-born England coach born after 1966, and he’s become an eloquent spokesman for a new way of doing things. This England team is relatively young. Only three players entered entered the World Cup in their 30s (tied for the lowest number in the tournament), and several starters had fewer than 10 caps. Even the stain of Euro 2016 has been somewhat washed away, as more than half the roster has turned over.

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The tactics are new. England is playing with three in the back and trying to keep the ball. There are names some may not recognize–let's assume NBC won’t be using Kieran Trippier or John Stones in their Premier League marketing campaigns. But Stones scored twice against Panama and Trippier, a winger, is proving himself to be an impressive bender of the ball.

Others will be expected to play more significant roles with England than they do at their clubs. At this World Cup, the likes of Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard will have to be world-beaters, even though they’re not the primary catalysts back in Manchester. Lingard of United scored a beautiful goal Sunday after a slick give-and-go with Sterling of City. It was an emphatic response to anyone wondering whether England could strike from open play. And then there’s Kane, who’s just about the least flashy golden boot candidate one can imagine. His five goals now lead the World Cup.

“We wouldn’t swap him for anyone in the tournament in terms of No. 9s. You know when he gets his opportunities, he’s going to bury them,” Southgate said following Kane’s hat trick, which included two successful penalties and a fortuitous deflection. “As important for me is the way he sacrifices himself for the team—the way he presses, the way he holds the ball up, the way he contributes to the overall game. He’s not just a player who stands up front and waits for chances. That’s important in the ethic of the team we’re trying to create.”

The significance of intangibles comes up over and over when Southgate speaks. He talked Sunday about “harmony" and the importance of players feeling “valued." He referenced the enjoyment of playing football, which isn’t something past England teams appeared to possess. On Saturday, he deftly handled the potential controversy concerning the pre-game publication of a photo showing a potential lineup, insisting the incident that occurred after an open training session won’t change the unprecedented access England is affording the media. And on Sunday, he listed the elements outside of his players’ control that could’ve tripped them up in Nizhny. It was nearly 90 degrees at kickoff. That’s a temperature that’ll be far more comfortable for Los Canaleros. The game was physical. And just like the 2-1 win over Tunisia demanded resilience and confidence toward the end, this one required ruthlessness against an over-matched and overwhelmed opponent, and the discipline to see the game out absent silly fouls or hijinks.

Yes, Felipe Baloy ruined the shutout with his sliding 78th-minute finish. But that moment, which was well-worth celebrating for Panama, didn’t take away from the fact that this was a game England likely would’ve labored through in the past. Tuesday, they made their superiority clear.

“It was a very strange feeling watching the second half, trying to encourage the players to keep professional in the way they played and be a top team by being ruthless,” Southgate said.

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He added that he knew how many countrymen were spending their Sunday watching back home, and was proud that, “I think they can see what we’re trying to do and the way they’re trying to play, and that the players are enjoying their football. You don’t get many opportunities to play in a game like that for England.”

Panama’s physicality couldn’t knock England off course. Neither could the photo incident. There’s been next to no conversation here in Russia about club rifts, WAGs, hooligans or other England tournament traditions that have been so damaging or distracting in the past. Perhaps these Lions will be put in their place by Belgium, a team full of several Premier League stars of significantly higher stature. But England is unlikely to beat itself, or exit this tournament amid self-recrimination or under the shadow of some manufactured controversy. If it can’t bring the trophy home, it can still leave the tournament as a better version of itself.

“We’re extremely proud of each other really, of the way we played, the discipline, the hard work, and that’s what we’re here to do,” Kane said after accepting his man of the match award. “And we had fun out there as well.”