Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 11, 2021

Promises Aside, England’s Long Wait Continues

It isn’t coming home after all. 

Like many of our games, the true origins of soccer are lost to the mists of time.  In the final centuries BC, a sport bearing at least a passing resemblance was played in China, and half a millennium later the Japanese game of Kemari had some of soccer’s elements.  But there is no dispute that the Football Association, organized in London in 1863, was the first effort to standardize the rules of a sport that by that time had been played in English schools for decades.  That has always been more than enough for fans in the green and pleasant land to claim pride of place for their isle as the birthplace of the world’s most popular sport, one now played by more than a quarter billion athletes in over two hundred countries, whose efforts are followed ever so closely by an even greater number of fans.

Prior to Euro 96, the quadrennial tournament among European national teams, the song “Three Lions” commemorated both the English team (thus the title), and the fact that the 1996 tournament was to be staged in England.  But in the years since, the song’s chorus of “it’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s home, football’s coming home,” has morphed into a rallying cry whenever the national team participates in a major tournament.  From Plymouth on the English Channel in the southwest, to Sunderland on the North Sea in the northeast, and seemingly in every city and town across the island nation, the chant is repeated, not as a statement about a tournament’s geography, but as a promise that the prize, usually either the European Championship Trophy or the World Cup, will soon be returning to its rightful location. 

Though in truth, for many fans of English soccer, perhaps “it’s coming home” has become not so much a promise as a plea.  For while England may be the sport’s home, its national team has seldom been the world’s or even the continent’s best.  The sole World Cup championship won by the Three Lions came more than half a century ago, in 1966.  In only two other World Cups did the English squad make it to the semifinals.  The first of those was 1990, when England met Germany in the penultimate round.  A 1-1 tie through regulation and extra time, the game was decided on penalty kicks.  The teams were even through three tries, then Olaf Thon converted for Germany.  When first Stuart Pearce, then Christopher Waddle were unable to do so for England, Germany was through to the World Cup Final.  Then three years ago in Moscow, Mario Mandzukic of Croatia broke a 1-1 tie in extra time, dashing English hopes yet again.

The European Championship is a younger tournament, having first been contested in 1960.  But through its first fifteen stagings, England had not made it to the championship match.  That drought included the 1996 tournament, when despite playing before home crowds throughout, England needed penalty kicks to advance past the quarterfinal knockout stage over Spain, and then again came a cropper against Germany, once more on penalties, in the semifinals.

The key miss in that contest was by Gareth Southgate, who now manages the national squad and who was roundly praised this year, as England advanced through Euro 2020, an event that kept its name despite being delayed a year by the pandemic.  With the final two rounds of the knockout stage scheduled for Wembley Stadium, the country’s familiar battle cry again took on its dual meaning, though most fans shouting “it’s coming home” weren’t expressing their joy at the location of the finals, but their hopes for a victory long denied.

England was solid if unspectacular in the group stage, then Southgate’s team appeared to ignite once the knockout stage started.  England vanquished its old foe Germany 2-0 in the Round of 16, then crushed Ukraine 4-0 in the quarterfinals.  That brought the squad back to home turf at Wembley for the final two rounds.  An upstart Denmark squad proved tenacious in the semifinal, but Harry Kane was the hero in extra time.  After Denmark was called for a penalty, his kick was easily saved, but he sprinted after the rebound and lofted the ball over Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel for the winning score.

Kane’s heroics put England in the European Championship final, against an Italian team that had its own demons, having failed to qualify for the last World Cup.  But Italy had added both style and offensive substance to its historically strong defensive game for this tournament, and most pundits gave it the edge.  Then England struck in the first two minutes, and suddenly fans in the stands could believe it was coming home.  They believed as the clock ticked, and the pressure built, and, perhaps, even when Italy leveled the score at 1-1 midway through the second half.  But given all that has gone before, all the heartache and hurt since 1966, surely doubts began to creep in.  They must have swirled as the final minutes of regular time wound down.  The uncertainty had to grow as the two teams remained level through extra time.

And so it was penalties.  Always with England, and seemingly always with pain, it is penalties.  Euro 2020 was no exception.  Kane and Jacob Maguire converted, giving England the edge when Andrea Belotti missed.  But the advantage was lost when Marcus Rashford’s shot missed the goaltender but hit the post.  Then, from 2-2, a make for Italy, a miss for England, a make for Italy, a miss for England, and it was over.  Wembley Stadium, so raucous for hours, grew quiet.  There were tears on the field, of joy from Italy’s players, of despair from England’s roster.  There were tears in the stands, from English fans who dared to believe that at long last, this was their time.  Instead they were left with neither a promise nor a plea, just the cold reality that once again, it isn’t coming home.

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