Mon. Aug 19th, 2019

England shakes its shootout curse and saves its World Cup

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MOSCOW — Of course it went to penalties. It always goes to penalties.

And of course everyone expected England to lose. Because England always loses when it goes to penalties.

It has become something of a theme. Or a curse. 1990. 1996. 1998. 2004. 2006. 2012. Six major tournaments in 22 years (including the European Championship), and England, brimming with high hopes and big-name players, going out in the cruelest possible way.

Midfielder Eric Dier delivered the final blow, slamming his attempt into the lower left corner under goalkeeper David Ospina after Colombia failed to convert its last two attempts. England’s goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford, had set the stage by pawing away Carlos Bacca’s fifth attempt for Colombia with a dive to his right.

Kane, Marcus Rashford and Kieran Trippier also converted for England in the shootout, sparing Jordan Henderson from a lifetime of ignominy after his penalty, England’s third, was saved by Ospina.

“It was a night I just knew we were going to get over the line,” England Manager Gareth Southgate said.

The result came so quickly — a miss, then a make — and was in many ways so unexpected given England’s history that its players did not seem to know what to do. Dier peeled off to his right, eventually collapsing under a pile of teammates. Trippier seemed caught in some in-between, jumping in place next to the pile as the England reserves raced past him to throw themselves on top of Dier.

“It was nice to get that one off our backs,” Kane said. “It’s a huge relief to take going forward.”

They will collect themselves for what’s next when they are ready. An unlikely date with Sweden awaits in the quarterfinals on Saturday in Samara.

But even in a tournament in which all had been going smoothly for England, they did not reach the final eight without flirting with disaster. England was winning (mostly) and scoring goals (often), and as it rolled into Moscow on Tuesday even the road to the latter stages of the World Cup was opening up right in front of them.

But Colombia arrived with little interest in feeding the growing can-England-win-this-thing narrative. And even after Kane seemed to put England into cruise control by drawing and then converting a penalty in the 57th minute, the Colombians fought — a bit too roughly for English tastes at certain points —for their World Cup life to the bitter end.

Kane’s goal — his sixth here — had given England a 1-0 lead and pushed him to the top of the race for the Golden Boot as the World Cup’s top scorer. But when Yerry Mina rose above Harry Maguire to head in the tying goal three minutes into injury time at the end of regulation, the heavily pro-Colombia crowd inside Spartak Stadium roared out of despair and right back into the game, and the feeling that England might just blow it all — again — hung in the air.

This was England’s first knockout-round win at a major tournament since 2006, when it beat Ecuador at the World Cup before falling to Portugal on penalties. The exits since then have seemed to alternate between galling failure (a loss to tiny Iceland at the 2016 European Championship) and utter humiliation (a group-stage exit from the 2014 World Cup, and a 4-1 thrashing by Germany in South Africa in the one before that). Before, and after, were those half-dozen penalty shootouts, and those half-dozen England defeats.

This World Cup, though, has been a complete turnaround in mood and results. England, which had long wilted under its country’s overly critical news media gaze, showed up in a positive mood, and preaching that this time — finally — would be different.

The players gave pretournament interviews with pleasure, then beat Tunisia in their opener and hammered Panama as a follow-up. Even a loss by their second-stringers against Belgium in the final group game had a silver lining: finishing second in the group placed England in what is clearly the easier half of the knockout-round bracket. If the English advance past unheralded Sweden, they would face not Brazil or Uruguay or Belgium again, but the survivor of the Russia-Croatia match.

That path will only raise expectations into the stratosphere, though. In Southgate’s news conference before the Colombia game, the second question posed to him was effectively this: With so many good teams out of the field, don’t you have a great chance to reach the final?

Southgate stayed off the Colombians’ bulletin board with a few clichés, but he knows exactly what is expected — and what can go wrong. He missed the final penalty in the shootout that saw England fall out of the 1996 Euros on home soil, and then saw his country go out of a World Cup by the same fate two years later.

He talked Monday about how he liked the way his team was playing, the freedom and confidence it had shown so far, and he said he hoped it would continue. “That shouldn’t change now that we’re in the knockout phase,” he said. “If anything, we should feel freer.”

They seemed to against Colombia, even as the game turned chippy and the referee, Mark Geiger of the United States, started showing his yellow card.

But Southgate also knew it had been more than a decade since England’s last knockout-round win at a big event, and so he was sure to savor this one — for himself, because of his past, but also because he thinks this England can paint a brighter future than its recent self-flagellating past.

“These are the games you want to be involved in,” he had said of the knockouts, his voice betraying just a micron of emotion. “You want to be involved in games that matter.”

It may only get better in Russia if these England players continue to distance themselves from their country’s dark soccer past.

“The lads,” Southgate said Friday, “have a chance to write their own stories now.”

                                                                                                                       @New York Times

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