There is a fact: England is in the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1990.
And then there is the fact that the fact seems preposterous. All that planning, all the hopes and dreams, all the squabbling over whether a winter break, or a restriction on the number of overseas players in the Premier League, or the rights and wrongs of paying huge salaries to foreign managers, and it turns out sometimes things just happen. As soon as England stopped striving for success at the international level, as soon as it looked at its squad and said, “Nope, no chance,” a semifinal and perhaps more was delivered.
As a heat wave gripped England over the weekend and the government tottered, with two cabinet ministers resigning on Monday, there were enormous impromptu gatherings on the street, some celebratory, some that turned violent. There is a feyness to it all, in the traditional sense of the term: a brittle glee rooted in the awareness that the end may be very close. Nothing feels quite real any more, none of the foundations have any solidity. And nothing, perhaps, is so revelatory of the random nature of existence than this England side.
Some have seemed very exercised by the fact that England so far in this tournament has beaten only Tunisia, Panama and Sweden in 90 minutes. But that is the nature of tournament football. In 1990, when England last reached a semifinal, it beat only Egypt in normal time. It can happen. Yet at the same time, it can hardly be denied that it has not faced a team of the stature of West Germany (1970), West Germany and Spain (1982), Argentina (1986), West Germany (1990), Argentina (1998), Brazil (2002), Portugal (2006) or Germany (2010), the teams that have ended its World Cups since it last won the tournament.
It may not even have faced anybody as good as Costa Rica, Uruguay and Italy, the sides it faced in the group stage four years ago. In that sense, Gareth Southgate has been a lucky manager–although in part the straightforward route to the last four was opened up by England losing its final group game to Belgium with a reserve side.
But even the fact Southgate is in the job is a matter of luck. Had things gone to plan, Sam Allardyce would be the manager now, and, given his fixation with Wayne Rooney, England may still be an incoherent side chugging around after an aging star. Allardyce served one game as England manager–a valuable 1-0 win away to Slovakia–before being forced to resign largely because of the FA’s craven submission to an anticipated media storm that never quite arrived.
Allardyce had been secretly taped at Wing’s, a Chinese restaurant in Manchester beloved of Louis van Gaal, apparently drinking a pint of wine while discussing opportunities with Daily Telegraph journalists pretending to be businessmen. They offered him the chance to make vast sums giving some speeches in Hong Kong and Singapore, a proposal in which he expressed interest while noting he would have to check with the FA. He also, as an experienced Premier League manager, promised to advise them how to sign players on third-party contracts to comply with Premier League regulations, something portrayed as “circumventing” the rules when it was little more than bureaucratic box-ticking. Fearing a slew of allegations by what was, misleadingly, trailed as a major exposé, the FA forced him out.
Southgate was initially seen merely as a placeholder. His time as Middlesbrough manager had been unspectacular. He was England's Under-21 manager and was seen as a solid, uncontroversial figure, somebody who could take over until somebody better came along. He was initially placed in charge for four games, two won, two drawn, and then, slightly reluctantly, given the job on a permanent basis.
Qualifying was uneventful but efficient, but it’s in what has followed where Southgate has excelled. As soon as England had booked its place in Russia, he announced it would play with a back three, that he wanted to pass the ball out from the back and that he would pick only players who were playing regularly enough to have proved their fitness. Simple ground rules consistently applied, it turned out, eliminated much of the nonsense that so often dogged the national side.
Southgate has, very rationally, looked at the ways a national team manager, in the limited time available, can have a positive impact. He has, clearly, worked on set plays, which have produced five goals and two penalties so far. He has employed a psychologist. He has encouraged good relations with the media, to the point of having a player take on a journalist at darts after every press conference at the training camp. He has taken penalty shootouts seriously, practicing them and working on mental approaches, with the result that England won one for the first time in 22 years.
And he has been lucky–not just in the draw but in having a largely ego-free group of promising players beginning to emerge and who are clearly having a great time. But much of sport is about creating the environment to take advantage when luck comes your way, and Southgate has done that.
England may lose to Croatia on Wednesday, but Southgate has already exceeded expectations, already restored some luster to the national side–and made people care again.