After he’d helped break England’s 55-year duck against Germany, an interviewer asked midfielder Declan Rice how that felt.
Rice didn’t answer the question because he was so disarmed by its premise.
“First time since ’66?” Rice said in a tone that suggested he wasn’t sure if that meant 1966 or 1866. “Wow. We’re part of history now.”
That right there. That poor man is coming down with a case of EFD (English Football Disease). As soon as any English player says the word “history” in a non-ironic context, you know they’ve got it.
EFD doesn’t just afflict the English. A batch of it often goes around in Toronto in the spring. It’s the sort that lasts a maximum of two weeks.
But EFD is most resilient in its country of origin.
Typical signs of EFD are talking up your losses like they are wins and your wins like they are the most important thing that ever happened. It lowers inhibitions and causes unreasonable euphoria.
EFD was going around hard in London’s Wembley Stadium on Monday after England’s 2-0 win over Germany.
Sure, that’s a moment in time for England. In fact, that’s exactly what the transported BBC play-by-play guy said as he rhapsodized orgasmically about a scruffy Harry Kane goal – “A national embrace! A moment in time!”
England had not beaten Germany in a tournament knockout game since they won the World Cup in … you’re beginning to get it now. It is understandable that the team and its supporters would be feeling pretty good about themselves.
But the scenes at Wembley were more effusive than that. Like, semi-hysterical.
The pandemic limitations on seating were rendered pointless once England scored. The socially distanced crowd came together in one heaving, sweaty mess and stayed that way.
Up in the expensive seats, you had Prince William pumping his fists like he’s been told the peasantry does, and Ed Sheeran and David Beckham putting their heads together for a little giggle.
(Why is it than whenever the English get together to celebrate anything, it turns into the visual equivalent of a Simpsons’ skit lampooning Britishness?)
High and low, suited and bare-chested, tattooed and much more tattooed, everyone in the home crowd was dizzy with delight by the end. Positively swooning.
Had it gone the other way, these same people, royalty included, would have been out on the field with pitchforks.
England manager Gareth Southgate has a wealth of young, offensive talent at his disposal. That creates the danger of playing favourites. Southgate cunningly solved this HR problem by declining to play any of his best young players. Instead, he fielded a starting eleven with a Hobbesian feel – nasty, brutish and short.
Had Germany won against that lineup, Southgate would have been branded a coward and run out on a rail. But they didn’t, so now Southgate is the greatest genius since Da Vinci. QED.
No one seems more in on this joke than the England manager himself.
He did insist on hugging every single member of the team after the game. And not a brush-by hug. A proper, look-me-in-the-eyes-first-so-I-can-feel-your-love hugs. It created a logjam on the sidelines as the subs tried to get out to the starters.
But after that bout of irrational exuberance, Southgate spent the postgame cancelling all excitement.
“I’ve had to say to [the team] straight away, ‘Look, I’m the party pooper. Because if we don’t capitalize on Saturday [in the quarter-final] then it doesn’t count for anything,” he said.
Southgate gets that beating Germany hasn’t made things better. It could very well have made them worse.
Tuesday’s win was no David versus Goliath moment. England had home-field advantage against a team that just nearly lost to Hungary. The German coach is quitting, but two tournaments too late. His Germany team hasn’t looked very German in years. The roster is in flux. Everyone on the team is a high-end talent, but none of them are stars.
All that to say, England didn’t beat Germany on Tuesday. They put them out of their misery.
Having done that, the tournament opens sesame in front of them. Next up – Ukraine. After that, either darlings Denmark or the Czech Republic. And then it’s the final against, oh, let’s call it Italy.
Two of those three as yet theoretical games will be played in London. All of them are against what the English will now think of as inferior competition.
This is where EFD gets you. Any other country could say, ‘We’re not looking past anyone’ and half-mean it. Any other country would play it a little cool. Any other country would resist the urge to start celebrating two weeks early.
But the English can’t do that. It’s just not in their football character. They don’t think of themselves as average at this game. They see themselves as unlucky. Catastrophically so.
But now their stars have aligned. The curse is broken. Beating Germany was their final. All they have to do now is slap around a few Slavs and Scandinavians and then get stuck into Italy or, pfffft, Belgium. Ha ha. Who can stop them?
Well, if history is our guide here, England can. England is extremely reliable at stopping England.
How they will manage it remains a beautiful mystery. An iconic gaffe, certainly. But not by the goalkeeper. That’s too obvious.
What’s it to be? An own goal? A red card at the worst possible moment? Or the oldest chestnut of them all – missed penalties. Southgate is something of an expert on the topic.
While the country goes bananas around them, you can already guess what the English team will be doing – praying to whatever god the players worship to spare them from infamy. It’s not exactly a winning mindset.
Because England didn’t just win on Tuesday. They also created a non-negotiable expectation. They are no longer one of the favourites to win this Euro. Now they have to win this Euro.