Somewhat inconveniently, England has just made this, a piece about it beating Canada in a World Cup quarterfinal that’s due to appear on a Canadian broadcaster’s website, a little awkward.
The consolation from an England perspective is that it has just beaten Canada, the excellent host, in a World Cup quarterfinal, winning just its second ever knockout game in the tournament in the process—its first coming just six days earlier against Norway in the Round of 16. To be fair, that is quite some consolation. In fact, with no caveats, this World Cup run is the most enjoyable England moment any England fan born after 1996 will have experienced.
Combining four consecutive World Cup wins with the late night kick-offs (over here in the UK) the atmosphere that’s been created is a bit like that of a hazy summer dream: the sun shines down in surreal fashion in the middle of the night and everything falls so neatly into place that it never feels fully real.
It’s utterly disconcerting, in a good way, and this weekend’s quarterfinal only enhanced the effect. A slow start, in front of an impressive 50,000 crowd in Vancouver cheering for Canada; a gut-wrenching goal conceded just before half-time; a second-half full of well-plotted pressure and a forced goalkeeping substitution: it all somehow combined to mean nothing negative for Mark Sampson’s team. England won despite it all. That would almost certainly never happen in real life.
Something has shifted at this tournament for this team.
Suddenly England isn’t that world-class catalyst for frustration and fear that it’s always been in the past; it’s still scary to watch play, but this time it’s satisfying to watch too. When it got its chances against Canada it was brilliantly clinical: Jodie Williams raced clear and against everything we have been taught to expect from any England team, grasped the occasion and scored. When crucial mistakes were made they were Canadian, not English: Allysha Chapman was left, mismatched at the back post, against Lucy Bronze for 2-0.
There remained worrying signs for England—pre-match there had been talk of pride in getting this far and as the match began there were ill-judged passes and nervous touches. But, again, for once, the negative potential simply didn’t come to fruition. Even when mistakes turned up, they weren’t punished. Even with the standard-issue goalkeeping mistake, England didn’t lose. Nothing bad happened.
And there, really, is the source of the shift in feeling. It’s not that England’s methods have become perfect during this World Cup or that all of its players have become world-beaters (although they still might). Instead it’s that, for whatever reason—and as lame as it sounds I’d put forward the amazing heart the players have shown—the team is winning. There is no better light to shine on a team than winning at a World Cup: one of the great clarifying forces, it neutralizes all failings and emphasizes all strengths. The details stop mattering.
The details have stopped mattering.
For any England fan this experience works in such direct contrast to every other England experience that it’s almost difficult to fully process. The only way to really understand it is via comparison to other successful teams and countries. You have to ask: is this what Germany fans feel like? Or: is this what Spanish fans have felt like over the last few years? And even that doesn’t really work. England fans simply aren’t built to process joy.
Of course, the unkind elephant in the room is that England still lacks what those teams have gone on to gain in the form of an actual, unequivocal World Cup win, rather than just a great series of dreamlike wins within a World Cup. So now, very quickly, the idea of beating Japan in Wednesday’s semifinal will come up in England circles. This being the thing with winning: it’s the kind of thirst that’s only ever temporarily quenched; the last one is always overwritten by the next one.
The questions will go up: Can Sampson’s team beat the current World champions? Can it go one better and win the whole tournament? The answers to both of these questions will be an utterly boring “maybe.”
But as a team that has on both the women’s and men’s side so often been such a pure source of disappointment in the past—such a grim beacon of frustration and anger—time will have to be made to relish this weird, slightly incomprehensible, dreamy summer moment. The one where England isn’t rubbish. The one where England didn’t almost do well at a World Cup. The one where England actually, for real, did do well at a World Cup.
A glint in his eye, Sampson captured the mood with his final comment to camera after the Canada match, when asked about playing Japan in the next game. “Bring it on,” he said. No England manager ever says “bring it on” and means it. Until now, apparently.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter