For almost 30 years, England has underperformed in the World Cup. That might not seem like a big deal, but it is in the British Isles. They invented the game, after all.
But this time around things have been very different. To the surprise of many, England made it to the final four—with a team bereft of household names. Gone are the Beckhams, Rooneys and Gerrards. And you know what, the team is winning. A remarkable coach, Gareth Southgate, has forged this team in a united whole that is better than the sum of its parts.
Southgate earned his job after a disastrous showing for the Brits at the Euro 2016 Football (soccer) Championship in France. The best men’s national teams from across Europe battled for the title of the continent’s best and, after the group stage, powerhouse England was set to play upstarts Iceland in the knock-out round. To put this match into perspective, Iceland is a country of 330,000 people (about the population of Coventry, England). It has more volcanos than professional soccer players and the head coach is a practicing dentist. Odds makers predicted the Brits would win by at least four goals.
But Iceland worked for 90 minutes as a united team, England played as a collection of talented players. Iceland stunned the football world by winning 2-1. English manager at the time, Roy Hodgson, resigned twenty minutes after the final whistle, and soon Southgate took over what may be the hardest job in sports—certainly the one with the highest of expectations.
But this manager understood the power of culture.
Striker Jermain Defoe said former English managers had focused almost exclusively on the Xs and Os, but new manager Southgate started doing things no manager had ever done. For instance, before England played two heated matches last summer, Southgate didn’t drill the team on set-plays or penalty shootout strategies, instead he took to train with the Royal Marines. “That would never have happened back in the day,” said Defoe. “We did not have our phones. I did things that I never thought I would do. There were times when I felt a little bit scared doing it, but you have to because your teammates are pushing you on and it’s all about building that trust. There was no direct relevance to football, but at the end of the day it was about taking the players out of their comfort zone.”
And by after completing the endurance courses, survival training, and sleeping under the stars, the team started to gel. In the past England had been a collection of clicks: Manchester United players might not even talk to the Chelsea guys, Liverpool lads would never have dinner with the Arsenal boys, and so on. But in Southgate’s culture, everyone plays for England.
Of course, at the World Cup elimination is always just 90 minutes away. A bad bounce or two and you are out. But no matter what happens this week, Southgate has shown that the best team does win. This English team has gone further than any in almost three decades, and we applaud the leader and those followers who bought into the power of culture.
And for those of you rooting for France, Belgium or Croatia, we certainly do not diminish their success or the brilliance of their managers. This was just the most interesting of the turnarounds for us of the four teams left standing, but as always we love to read your thoughts in the comments below.