MOSCOW — It wasn’t a measure of footballing ability so much as it was a test of focus and composure, a 120-minute game of gamesmanship, graft and late adversity. And then came the final exam, a penalty shootout—the stage at which more celebrated predecessors failed so frequently and famously.
It wouldn’t be fair to judge the evolution of English football, or the growth of this young national team, based on whether it wins the World Cup. “Everything’s ahead of this team,” coach Gareth Southgate said this week, and that includes challenges and opportunities beyond this summer. Here in Russia, several trophy contenders with more talent and experience remain.
But this Three Lions team already has achieved several noteworthy and laudable things. Beyond the not-necessarily-inevitable-for-England intangibles it’s demonstrated—unity, humility, likeability and tactics that suit the player pool—there now are the benchmarks established in Tuesday night’s round-of-16 triumph over Colombia. For the first time since 2006, England's senior side has survived a knockout game at a major tournament. And for the first time in its mostly-tortured World Cup history, it was better than the opponent from 12 yards.
The 1-1 score through 120 grinding minutes at Spartak Moscow’s Otkritie Arena will go down as the official result. But what England really will remember is 4-3–the score of the tiebreaker. It found itself at that highest of historical hurdles because of Colombia’s 93rd-minute equalizer, a header from imposing center back Yerry Mina. And the shootout started to slip away like so many had before when Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson saw his shot saved by Arsenal’s David Ospina. But then Colombia midfielder Mateus Uribe (who doesn’t play in England) struck the crossbar, and teammate Carlos Bacca was denied by goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
The 24-year-old Everton netminder was emotional. American referee Mark Geiger, whose effort to keep control of a rough-and-tumble game was a focus for many, ordered Pickford back to the endline as he wandered toward midfield. As Eric Dier stepped to the spot for the potential clincher, Pickford pounded the turf. He wouldn’t need to gather himself for a sixth round. Dier, a late second-half substitute, went low and to his left, and England will meet Sweden on Sunday for a surprising spot in the semis.
It marked only the second time England won a major-tournament match on penalties. The first came on home soil at Euro ’96 and was followed immediately by a semifinal shootout loss to Germany. Four similar defeats followed, from the 2006 setback to Portugal that ended the run of an England team that, on paper, was good enough to win the World Cup, to the Euro 2012 loss to Italy that marked the last title charge for most of that underachieving golden generation.
“Should it come to that stage, we’re ready,” Southgate said Monday. He was the only player to miss that day 22 years ago against Germany. But perhaps now he’ll be remembered more as the coach who promised an England team could handle these kind of mental and emotional rigors, and then delivered.
“It will never be off my back. That’s something that will live with me forever,” Southgate said of his penalty miss at Wembley. “But today is a special moment for this team, and hopefully it’ll give belief to the generations of players that follow, because they can see what is possible in life. We always have to believe in what’s possible and not be hindered by history or expectations.”
The latter hadn’t been an issue until the past few days, and what started as a challenge England likely never imagined facing became another one conquered—at least so far. Very little was expected from this group. After being eliminated in just two games in Brazil four years ago and then falling to Iceland at Euro 2016, getting out of a group featuring the likes of Tunisia and Panama wasn’t taken for granted. England was starting over. But as World Cup carnage unfolded and England’s half of the bracket thinned out, possibilities emerged. As Tuesday’s game kicked off, one of England, Colombia, Sweden, Russia or Croatia was guaranteed to be an extremely unlikely participant in the World Cup final.
As much as Southgate tried to direct attention toward Colombia, he was asked repeatedly Monday about the potential foes down the road. Even Wayne Rooney, a member of six England teams that fell short, said this week that, “I think we should be dreaming now.”
Said Southgate, “We’ve been in this position before many times … so it’s pointless even thinking about what might happen after [Colombia].”
What could've been just platitude became practice. This England team simply will not lose focus. They were in control early against Colombia—not overconfident because of the absence of injured Cafeteros playmaker James Rodríguez, not cowed by a loud pro-Colombia crowd at Spartak, not frustrated by a match that got progressively chippier and more physical.
Harry Kane scored his tournament-leading sixth goal of this World Cup on a 57th-minute penalty, but then Mina forced extra time.
“I thought we played with great discipline,” Southgate said. “We were very composed in our use of the ball, and in a big game I think that was impressive from a young group of players. We then had to keep our discipline several times, which was outstanding. And we had a cruel blow on 90 minutes which we then had to show incredible resilience to come back from.”
Late-game substitutions by both sides left the extra 30 minutes looking a bit haphazard, so it was on to the tiebreaker.
“It was a night I knew we were going to get over line,” Southgate said. “I just felt we had the resilience and belief to get over the line, whatever it was going to take.”
England’s post-game locker room, he said, was “like a scene from M*A*S*H.” They’ve got very little time to move past Tuesday’s euphoria and get ready for the team's first World Cup quarterfinal in a dozen years. It would be a shock if any of Southgate’s players—England is the youngest team left in the tournament—has seen an episode of the classic comedy. What’s come before is less relevant to this group, and the manager has continually urged them to “write their own history.” They will not overlook Sweden, he said, for that’s a team that’s “greater than the sum of their parts, more often then not.”
Until this summer, that’s not something that’s been said about England in a long time.
“These are the moments when you really see it,” said Kane, the 24-year-old captain. “We spoke about being an inexperienced team, a young team. But we’ve grown up a lot on that pitch out there tonight. … Especially in the penalty shootout, there was a lot of that mentality. We know England in the past haven’t done great. It was nice to get that off our back—a huge relief for the team.
“It’ll give us huge belief,” he continued. “Can you win a knockout game? If along the way, it goes to penalties, can you win a penalty shootout? We ticked all the boxes so far. … This will give us more belief than ever. It’ll give the fans back home more belief than ever. They’re enjoying it. We’re enjoying it. And we’re just looking forward to the next one.”