At last. At very, brutally, painfully, long last.
Perhaps we were wrong to say it would be easy. To say that, in a side of the tournament tree in which England are the only team to have won a World Cup, a stroll to the final in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on July 15th would be a given. To insist we would walk over a Colombia team with a point to prove after a harrowing quarter-final exit to the hosts four years ago in Brazil.
But this is a World Cup that just keeps on delivering shock after shock. Italy not even at the party; Germany out at the group stage; Messi and Ronaldo failing to provide the spark required to carry them to the quarter-final stage; the hosts (and lowest-ranked team here) Russia edging past 2010 winners Spain to make it there. And now we finally – finally – have a victory at a penalty shootout in a World Cup, only our second ever in eight attempts – our only other coming 22 years ago against Spain in the quarter-finals of Euro 96.
It was a particularly tough road to get there. Colombia, missing star man James Rodriguez to a calf strain that had been niggling him since the start of the tournament, set up purely to frustrate England. And frustrate they did.
Tempers frayed and England’s discipline was tested to the limit. This was a Colombia side who had fought tooth and nail to reach the knockouts, and they weren’t going to give it up easily. Despite Quintero’s creativity and Cuadrado’s technical ability, coach Jose Pekerman set up his side to be physical, demanding, and aggressive. This was not to be a free-flowing, end-to-end affair in the style of France’s fantastic 4-3 dispatching of Argentina or Belgium’s astonishing 3-2 comeback against Japan earlier in the knockouts. Colombia wanted to break England.
It was a shame for the supporters of both sides that the game should play out like this. Credit to England, then, that they rarely rose to the antics. Perhaps they might have done, when Wilmar Barrios shoved his head into Jordan Henderson’s chest and was only shown a yellow when he was clearly seeing red, or when Yerry Mina clambered all over the back of a Raheem Sterling half his size for the third successive time. The American referee should have had far more of a lid on things – a barrage of English but usually Colombian players in his face at every opportunity they got – and despite a total of eight yellow cards handed out, he could (and should) have booked far more. At least he was on the spot when it mattered, when, deep into the second half, Kane was clattered to the floor yet again as Kieran Trippier floated in a corner.
It was the sort of calamitous challenge we have seen all too often this tournament, Carlos Sanchez forcing Kane to give him a piggy-back as he struggled to get free. A clear penalty, and a chance to go 1-0 up. But not before – of course – a three-minute altercation with the referee from both sets of players which resulted in a Jordan Henderson yellow card whilst Johan Mojica cynically scuffed the penalty spot out of sight of the officials. But this is Harry Kane, and Harry Kane does not miss penalties. Straight down the middle, and suddenly England saw themselves on track to win a first knockout match at an international tournament since 2006.
Wave after wave of Colombian pressure crashed down on the back three of Stones, Walker, and the outstanding Harry Maguire playing the match of his life. Deep into the third minute of stoppage time, Colombian substitute Mateus Uribe brought the save of the tournament out of Jordan Pickford – all “too small” jibes now forgotten – his thunderous strike tipped wide by the Everton goalkeeper’s fingertips. Sheer bad luck, then, that the ensuing corner resulted in Yerry Mina clambering over the England back line to score his third of the tournament.
England were deflated. The next 15 minutes were damage control, Gareth Southgate’s men hanging on for sheer life. In the second half of extra time, England’s composure regained as Danny Rose scuffed his shot just wide. But it was all for naught. As the minutes slowly ticked by, you could feel the grim realisation dawn upon the England support: we were heading for penalties. Oh dear.
It felt destined to be; Gareth Southgate – the man who missed that crucial spot-kick against Germany in the Euro 96 semi-final – would now lead his young England side to yet another heartbreaking exit at the hand of 10 penalty kicks. When Jordan Henderson had his penalty terrifically saved putting the Colombians 3-2 up, a sad resignation enveloped the country.
This is the World Cup that keeps on giving.
When Mateus Uribe’s effort thundered off the bar, and Kieran Trippier blasted one into the top corner from 12 yards, we dared to dream. Step forward Jordan Pickford, his strong left hand defiantly keeping out Carlos Bacca’s nervy attempt. Suddenly, we could win this.
God only knows what must have been going through Eric Dier’s head as he stepped forward to take the decisive penalty. His somewhat muted reaction to putting it away suggests he must have been in wonderland, transported to just another training-ground session to rid himself of the nerves and the pressure of being the first man in 22 years to deliver England a penalty shootout triumph.
It soon dawned on the rest of the England team. Heartbreak for Colombia, but sheer ecstasy for those on the pitch, those in the backroom staff, those travelling fans in the stadium, those watching in pubs or fan parks or from behind the sofa back home.
“We’re trying to write our own history,” a clearly emotional Southgate told BBC Sport after the match. “This was special but I want us to go on. I don’t want to go home yet.”
England have done it. England have won a knockout game, and a penalty shootout. A quarter-final against Sweden on Saturday afternoon awaits.