England's route to the Euro 2020 final has been a fun ride but, as the old saying goes, a movie is only as good as its ending.
Winning a high-stakes knockout match in an international football tournament requires several factors to go your way. An often underrated and discounted factor is luck. The best of teams will have that one lucky break every now and then which often determines their fate going forward. That moment came for England in the Euro 2020 semi-final against Denmark.
The match was at 1-1 and England, who absolutely dominated the second half of the match before extra time but had nothing to show for it, once again went forward.
Raheem Sterling broke the lines and reached the penalty area where he was fouled by Joakim Maehle. The referee blew his whistle and pointed at the spot. Denmark’s players were incredulous. The contact seemed minimum at best.
But crucially, there was contact. Which is why a VAR check saw no clear and obvious error on the part of the on-field referee. The decision stood.
Let’s take a minute here to mention the ambiguity present in the interpretation of the rules. Yes, that call could have gone either way because the referee is allowed to determine the degree of contact made.
That ambiguity can often lead to a different interpretation of the rules. Another referee might have waved play on, believing contact was minimal – and he would have been correct.
But, as luck would have it, this time the decision went England’s way. But wait, that wasn’t all. Kane, normally an assured penalty taker, shot weakly to Kasper Schmeichel’s right. As it turns out, England’s luck was not over yet.
The Dane only parried the ball straight back to Kane, who pounced on the opportunity to slam home the rebound. England were ahead, and that’s where they would stay for the remainder of the night.
The raucous celebrations of the English fans and players would have onlookers forgiven for thinking the job was already done. Yet, as England and Gareth Southgate know, there is still one final hurdle to cross.
English football has a long and storied history of overachievement at the domestic level but underachievement at the international level.
The Premier League is the most popular domestic football league in the world, and a number of English clubs have won European honours. Hell, the current Champions League holders are English too.
Yet they have struggled at international tournaments. No Olympic golds, no European Championships – and just the one World Cup, all the way back in 1966.
Incidentally, that home World Cup 55 years ago is the last time England even made the final of a major tournament. Thus, in that context, the relief and joy sparked by a semi-final win against plucky underdogs Denmark is understandable.
But the real test is now. England’s route to the Euro 2020 final has been a fun ride but, as the old saying goes, a movie is only as good as its ending.
A night we’ll all remember ❤️ pic.twitter.com/nN04GAditn
— England (@England) July 8, 2021
And the final chapter of this story sees them come up against a formidable foe who also just so happen to be undergoning a mini renaissance of their own – Italy.
The final will be a battle of wills almost as much as it will be about tactics. Italy not only went through extra-time but needed a penalty shoot-out to get past a valiant Spain. There will be tired legs on both sides.
Yet it’s also worth noting that Italy have won tournaments aplenty at the international stage. They are four-time world champions, one-time European champions and even made the final of the Euros as recently as 2012.
For England, the motivation is different.
The 2000s have been about English international teams across sports coming to terms with the times and winning too. The England men’s rugby team won the Rugby World Cup in 2003 and were runners-up in 2019.
The same year the rugby team finished second, the men’s cricket team broke their long-running World Cup jinx, defeating New Zealand in a final so close it might never be topped.
England’s football team are underachievers of a similar mould. The talent is there, and always has been. It’s just a matter of getting the best out of individuals – as a team.
The men’s football team have shown signs of doing just that so far. Now, they are one step away from writing a new chapter in the history of English football.