Saturday 22 September 2018

They pulled each other’s shirts for 120 minutes and England won 4-3 on penalties. That really was it

Analysis

Gareth Southgate. Photo: Getty
Gareth Southgate. Photo: Getty

Jonathan Liew

Half-time in extra time. England's desperate, exhausted footballers gathered around in a shape you could only loosely describe as a circle. Officially we had been playing for 105 minutes. In reality, it was almost two-and-a-half hours since the game had started with a promise, a riot of colour and a bloom of noise that seemed now to belong to another world.

Gareth Southgate leaned in and began talking. Marooned beyond the touchline, we didn't hear what he was saying. But after a few seconds, it became clear that very few of his players did, either. Some glanced occasionally towards him, blinking at this strange man in the croupier's waistcoat. But most were simply engaged in their own reverie: a demonic dance visible only in their heads, their own private Vietnam.

It had been a horrific game: to watch, to write about, to predict, to play in, to manage. If sport is war without the shooting, then this was more akin to an episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show in shorts: a game of irascible, almost intolerable bitchiness, surly and spiky, the product of two teams with the will to triumph, but not necessarily the skill. And yet England still won. Against Colombian elbows and studs, they won. After suffering, in the third minute of injury time, the sort of concussive blow from which it was assumed only champions really recover, they won.

Against the soul-crushing weight of their own leaden history, the 12 yards that have defined lifetimes, they won. Bearing the tipsy reveries of a nation that has finally learned to adore them, they won. What does that tell us about them?

Perhaps nothing. This wasn't, after all, one of those games from which there were stunning conclusions to be drawn. Nor was it one of those games that seemed to fit some wider tactical narrative. Nor was it a game in which very much - unless you were a connoisseur of sumo - happened at all. England and Colombia pulled each other's shirts for 120 minutes. Neither of them were very good. England won by four penalties to three. And that, really, was it.

It wasn't football. You couldn't call it football, even by its loosest definition. This was something else.

What we were seeing instead was the sort of thing that happens when sport descends into a test of stomach: a battle of will and courage and brawn and sufferance, as much about morals as it is about talent. How low will you go to win this? How deep will you delve into your reserves of cynicism and cruelty? Because England discovered early on, if they didn't know it already, that Colombia's went extremely deep.

And so what transpired was not so much a knockout-stage game at the biggest football tournament at Earth as the sort of thing you would watch on Bravo at 2am after coming home from the pub: one of those minor fight sports in which the muscles were artificial but everything else, including the pain, was real. The Colombians fought for everything, challenged for everything, appealed for everything, chased everything. A short and by no means exhaustive catalogue of Colombia's skulduggery.

1) Juan Cuadrado standing directly in front of Ashley Young as he prepared to take a free-kick, refusing to give an inch, much less 10 yards.

2) Falcao rushing up to Jordan Pickford to prevent him taking a quick goal-kick.

3) Yerry Mina - a lovable if overly tactile 6ft 4in Barcelona centre-half with a mournful gait and strong arms that just want someone to hold - trying to ride Raheem Sterling like a mule.

4) Cuadrado - again - giving Harry Maguire a meaty shove as the ball bounced out of play.

5) Wilmar Barrios flicking his head into Jordan Henderson's as they lined up in the wall.

6) As referee Mark Geiger - whose performance was not only unworthy of a World Cup last-16 game, but barely worthy of his stadium accreditation - marked out the 10-yard line with his disappearing spray, Cuadrado - again! - immediately trying to rub it out with his hand.

7) One of the Colombian technical staff body-checking Sterling as he ran down the tunnel at half-time.

That was just from the first 45 minutes. It was ugly and it was uncompromising. But it was the World Cup. What else were they going to do? And before long England realised that there would be no safety net, and with the imbecilic Geiger in charge, very little statutory recourse. They had to mix it up.

And so after Harry Kane's penalty had put Southgate's men ahead England resorted to their own dark arts. Time-wasting tactics. Injuries that had the look, if not quite the feel, of life-threatening emergencies. No-frills keep-ball football. It seemed to work a treat.

Then Mina went up for a corner, used Maguire's shoulders to leverage himself upwards, and nodded the ball in. It happens.

In the stands, Colombia had the clear numerical advantage, probably five or six to one. They emptied their lungs, and then emptied them some more.

The English band beat their drums in response like a racing pulse.

On the pitch, England gathered kindling for another attack. But their moves were falling apart, their passes going astray, their touches the touches of tired men. Penalties loomed.

And England won. What does that tell us about them? Perhaps that they're a little more streetwise than we thought they were.

Perhaps that history has no bearing on them. Perhaps that they're just two wins from the World Cup final. Perhaps that as disaster reared its head, as a nation dug its fingernails into its palms, England refused to blink back. That might come in handy later. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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