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Dispatches from the present


Cautious Optimism: England vs. Wales


This is the first in a series of dispatches by Tara K. Menon on the World Cup. First up: England’s first three games. 

To be an England football fan is to exist in one of two states: sense-defying confidence or abject gloom. There seems little room for anything other than full-throated singing of Football’s Coming Home (they’ve won once, in 1966) or booing their own players after the final whistle. The first two games of the group stage of the 2022 FIFA World Cup gave, in turn, reason for both wild optimism and deep despair.

For an outsider (I’m an Indian who grew up Singapore) who often hopes for England to crash out of tournaments (blame Empire), this hysteria is the source of much comedy. When it comes to its football team, a country that prides itself on its ability to be calm is reduced to a nervous mess. How can you not laugh? But I am also a Liverpool fan who has watched many of these beautiful, brilliant English players week after week, and now I find that I cannot muster much hatred for them, especially the younger lot who ignite the attack: Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and, mostly, Trent Alexander-Arnold. Slowly, the Premier League has put pressure on my anti-imperialism. In the words of my appalled husband, Trent has done what Jane Austen could not.

In the opener, England walloped Iran 6-2. They played stylish, precise, open football and the goals came from everywhere: Bellingham, Saka, Sterling, Saka again, and then, for good measure, one each from Rashford and Jack Grealish, who had just come off the bench. At the top of the long list of things to celebrate was the arrival on the global stage of Jude Bellingham, the nineteen-year-old phenom who plays with the calm confidence of a player twice his age. Next was the return of the old Harry Maguire, who after months warming the bench for Manchester United was back, in his England shirt, to his imperious best. In the feverish afterglow, fans and newspapers sung their praises. Could this team win the whole thing?

Then America ruined the fun. After a lackluster performance and a nil-nil draw against a team they thought they should walk over, the English changed their tune: the players were rubbish; the manager didn’t know what he was doing; and perhaps Iran were just poor (or at least distracted by the protests at home). Was that, the pundits asked, the worst performance ever by an English team at the World Cup?

It makes sense that in the face of the country’s collective inability to control its emotions the man in charge of its football team is the eminently (excessively?) sensible Gareth Southgate. A former England defender best known for missing a penalty against Germany, Southgate meets every emotion—cynicism, rage, dread, boundless hope—with reason and measure. What do you make of the two results, a journalist asked. Two very different games, against two very different opponents, he replied. Fair. Let’s not get carried away, he reminds everyone, again and again. Since he has taken over, steadfast Southgate has consistently modeled another way—a middle way—of thinking about English football: cautious optimism. England’s results in the last two major tournaments (a final and semifinal) speak to the success of his approach.

Still, he had a lot to answer for after that somewhat pathetic second game. Above all, was he going to play Phil Foden? Foden, a star on the star-studded Manchester City, is, inarguably, the best player in the entire England squad. He did not start against Iran, and, more incomprehensibly still, he didn’t play a minute against the United States. But when the lineups were announced before the Wales match, Southgate, who has been constantly criticized for his conservatism, showed his willingness to experiment and adapt. Foden was in.

In some ways, England’s game against Wales yesterday was low stakes. There was almost no chance that England would fail to advance. If they tied, they were safe. Depending on the result in the Iran U.S. game, they could even lose by a few goals and still get through. And from the beginning, the deck was stacked against Wales. This was their first World Cup in 64 years, England has won the last six times the two neighbors have met, and the aging heroes of this Welsh team—Gareth Bale, Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey—are shadows of the players they once were. Still, the question remained: which England would show up to play? The team that demolished Iran with flair and ease, or the flat, uninspired one that couldn’t find the back of the net against the United States?

In the first half, England dominated possession but otherwise looked slow, unsteady, out of rhythm. It didn’t help that the ball seemed slippery from the overwatered pitch. The much-hyped Foden looked a little lost, nothing like the electric forward he is when he plays for his club. The eleven Welsh players deserve credit: they showed tremendous discipline, held their shape and made it difficult for the English players to find any space. Whenever England tried to surge forward, they faced a sea of red shirts in the box. There were a few exceptions. In the tenth minute, Kane played an inch-perfect ball to put Rashford through on goal. The United striker seemed to hesitate for half a second, just enough time for the goalkeeper Danny Ward (standing in for Wayne Hennessey, the first-choice goalie, who was suspended after his red card against Iran) to step bravely forward and block the shot. As the half drew to a close, I kept replaying that moment. Was England destined for another goalless draw?

When the whistle blew for the second half, the camera cut to Gareth Bale, the talismanic Welsh captain, sitting on the bench, presumably injured. It felt not just like the end of Wales’s tournament but also the end of an era. On the pitch, Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford had switched sides and the tide turned almost immediately. Foden, now playing on the left, looked as if he had been set free. In the forty-eighth minute, he received the ball on the sideline and made a brilliant run (the kind he makes all season for Manchester City) toward the center of the field, dancing through three defenders until one of them brought him to the ground just outside the box. Rashford curled the free kick into the top right corner, away from the wrong-footed Ward. Then, Kane hit another perfect pass. This time, the ball rolled straight across the front of goal until Foden’s left foot slotted it into the back of the net. Two goals in two minutes. Not long after, Rashford smashed it through the legs of the keeper to make it three. Ward and Wales, who had looked safe and steady in the first half, were now, finally, completely out of luck.

When Rashford was substituted, he received an ovation from the crowd, and a warm embrace from Southgate. It is impossible, even if you want England to lose, to feel anything but joy for Rashford, who has used every bit of influence he has gained from playing football to ensure that no child in England would feel the hunger he once did. (In 2020, his urgent campaign shamed the Boris Johnson government into announcing a funding package to alleviate child food poverty.)

How will the fans and the media respond to this result? Will they go back to singing songs of victory? Will they expect, foolishly, to trounce Senegal on Sunday? Or will they agonize that Harry Kane has yet to score a goal and bemoan John Stones missing a sitter in stoppage time? It seems too much to suppose that they might instead emulate the cautious optimism of their shrewd, practical manager.