England is the birthplace of both soccer and dramatic irony. For several decades, the two native traditions merged. As if scripted by Charles Dickens or Henry Fielding, the fate awaiting English soccer was visible to everyone—except the nation itself. Deluded by its triumph in the 1966 World Cup, the country set itself expectations that it could never possibly fulfill—and it didn’t. Inevitable debacle followed debacle, each accompanied by ritualized bouts of self-immolation. Players were accused of lacking commitment to the cause; wags bemoaned the nation’s paucity of technical acumen.
This time, there was no foreshadowing of crushing defeat, because there was no sense of expectation. England’s manager, Gareth Southgate, had played a central role in some of England’s past catastrophes. And he seemed hell-bent on tamping down any thought that his team might win the tournament. If you’ve ever listened to the meditative app Headspace, Southgate is like its soporific zen master, Andy Puddicombe, with an almost narcotic capacity to numb and becalm.
Then the unlikely happened. The squad—young, slightly patchwork—started to win the sorts of games that have usually induced English choking. Its intricate passing seemed to finally dispose of England’s deeply ingrained habit of aimlessly kicked balls in the direction of the box. Kieran Trippier, the team’s bombarding right back, became one of the breakout stars of the tournament. The slogan “It’s Coming Home,” an allusion to England’s invention of the global game, was chanted ironically; then it began to be trumpeted earnestly. But at the moment the country worked itself into a frenzy, it was almost inevitable that the plot would punish England again for permitting itself a sense of self-belief.