SAMARA, Russia — Curiously, unfittingly, they numbered relatively few. Somehow, after 28 years and all the fecklessness and all the nuttiness and the can’t-make-it-up human frailty around the England national soccer team, the England fans present Saturday formed but a wee bloc among the 39,991 in a widely neutral Samara Arena.
Way out here where the Volga and the Samara rivers meet and the Kazakh border sits just over yonder, those fans seemed to summon the bottoms of their lungs when, in the second minute of stoppage time, they again had something to sing.
“God save our gracious Queen!
“Long live our noble Queen!
“God save the Queen!”
As they contorted their voices for that funny thing they do, simulating the musical lilt that follows those lyrics, they would not and should not have worried that England’s 2-0 win over Sweden may have ranked among the most forgettable matches of Russia’s rambunctious World Cup. It would not and should not have caused them a jot of moderation that the path to England’s first World Cup semifinal since 1990 hadn’t been cluttered with any titans. As they boomed their a cappella as much as they could, maybe they sang for the droves at home who avoided traveling to Russia because of one misgiving or another.
Those aged enough had followed some outlandish shenanigans through the 28 years until Gareth Southgate, a 47-year-old former England player given to a competent look with a vest and tie, became the third England manager to reach a World Cup final four, following upon Sir Alf Ramsey (who won in 1966) and Sir Bobby Robson (1990).
They had seen 13 England managers, three of those interim, since the 3-2 comeback win over Cameroon in the 1990 World Cup quarterfinals in Naples. They had seen the damnedest lunacy: a manager (justly) sacked for saying disabled people are repaying sins from past lives, a manager tricked by a “fake sheikh” who turned out to be a reporter, a manager ridiculed after his final night on the job because he unfathomably had stood on the sideline using an umbrella.
They had seen Southgate get the job in fall 2016 only because the previous manager, Sam Allardyce, was caught on camera after managing for 67 days and one match talking about doing some rascally deals with business executives who turned out to be . . . reporters.
“It’s an incredible privilege to be the England manager anyway” — let alone in the World Cup semifinals, Southgate would say.
On they sang in the stands, and thanks for the reminder.
As they got to the lyric that calls for the word “victorious,” many singers surely could recite all this: England, the birthplace of the game, the home to its most revered league, didn’t make the 1994 World Cup, lost to Argentina on penalties in the 1998 round of 16, lost to Brazil in the 2002 quarterfinals, lost to Portugal on penalties in the 2006 quarterfinals, lost to Germany in the 2010 round of 16, went meekly and dismally after group play in 2014 and saw the coming and fizzling of a generation allegedly great along the way.
It lost to Iceland at Euro 2016, enabling England’s zesty array of chroniclers of the English game to note that Iceland’s population did not quite match that of Sheffield or Leeds.
Now the English souls who made it all the way out here by conquering or ignoring fears of Russian fan violence similar to that at Euro 2016 — or the distance or the paucity of flights or the cost or the Russia-Britain strife after the poisoning of Russian citizens within England — knew what they saw. They saw an England team that had weathered penalties against Colombia and turned up superior to Sweden. They saw a discernible difference in quality.
They saw defender Harry Maguire’s first goal with the national team on his commanding header off a corner in the 30th minute and 22-year-old Dele Alli’s header off Jesse Lingard’s swell cross in the 59th. They saw a goalkeeper, Everton’s Jordan Pickford, make enough athletic saves to get called man of the match.
They saw togetherness where there used to be cliques, so that Pickford said, “We know our ability, and it’s all about our togetherness, and I feel like if our togetherness is there as it always is, we control what’s on the pitch.” They had the manager of a rugged quarterfinalist, Sweden’s Janne Andersson, saying, “Sometimes your opponent is better,” calling England “heavy, forceful, well organized” and saying, “They don’t give a lot of openings. I believe they will be perfectly able to go all the way.”
Then they saw a young team in infectious group hugs, jumping up and down together, dancing in front of the fans. Said Southgate: “We’ve come to this point because the collective has been so strong,” seeing “a young team, really maturing before our eyes,” while knowing “that in years to come they’re going to be stronger, but today was a huge opportunity for us.”
The singers saw something that looked very much like a clear identity, a willing young captain in Harry Kane, who won’t reach 25 until later this month, and a welcome dose of character, of which Southgate said, “And when you’re away for however long we’ve been away, I’ve lost track, that can be really important.”
Twenty-eight years, it was, so much absurdity and futility leading way out here, to a World Cup for which England bid years ago but did not get, all the way to smallish section of singers who accomplished some volume — “Long to reign over us.” — and then yielded eventually to stadium speakers, which played the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” Really.
— Chuck Culpepper
Alli comes out
Alli’s day is done in the 75th minute, though he tries to waste time by dawdling and turning his back to the technical area when Fabian Delph comes to take him off. Cheeky.
Viktor Claesson makes a beautiful run into the box but Pickford dives right and gets a hand on the ball for another great save.
A wide-open Dele Alli sends in a brilliant header to put England up 2-0 off Jesse Lingard’s assist.
♦ Culled from the Washington Post