Moscow: As captain Harry Kane walked away from the celebrating England fans after his team’s heart-stopping World Cup penalty shootout win over Colombia on Tuesday he looked so relaxed he could have been strolling to the corner shop for a bottle of milk.
Then it all dawned on him. Kane’s face broke, his eyes closed shut in total relief and he looked to the heavens, mouthing his gratitude for the end of his team’s horrendous run of defeats in major tournament shootouts.
The skipper and his teammates had kept their cool when it mattered most – for 120 minutes of a tense and tetchy game played at a Spartak Stadium which resembled Bogota, given the dominance of Colombia’s passionate supporters.
England, none more so than Kane who had put them in the lead from the penalty spot in the 57th minute, held their nerve at the decisive turning-points in an intense match, showing an unexpected maturity for the youngest team left in the tournament.
They avoided losing their heads during moments of provocation from the Colombians and periods when American referee Mark Geiger lost control of the game. Crucially, they were able to stand up and fight on after the punch in the gut that came with Yerry Mina’s stoppage-time equalizer.
And then, facing the shootout test that has proved too much for England teams for so long, they kept their emotions in check, put history out of mind and focused on the task in hand.
The history weighed heavily — England had the worst senior shootout record in world football, losing on penalties in World Cups in 1990, 1998 and 2006, and at the European Championship in 1996, 2004 and 2012. All that had to be banished from their minds.
Kane was handed the task of opening the trial for Gareth Southgate’s side and he unflappably passed the test.
Marcus Rashford also converted his penalty and after Jordan Henderson’s effort was saved, the Tottenham Hotspur pair of Kieran Trippier and Eric Dier stepped up to beat David Ospina while Colombia’s final two penalty-takers fluffed their lines.
Victory secured, the calmness vanished immediately.
The waist-coated Southgate, whose quiet confidence and tranquil air have set the tone for this side, almost collapsed as his knees buckled the very moment Dier squeezed the ball past the touch of Ospina and into the corner of the net. Southgate’s assistants caught his fall and his face told his own story.
Southgate deserves a large share of the credit for the breaking of the hoodoo. Since March, the man who missed the decisive kick in the Euro 96 semi-final against Germany, has made sure his team prepared for this very outcome.
The 47-year-old has been smart enough to realize that while pundits may dismiss the shootout as a lottery, it is in fact a supreme test of nerve and skill.
The England manager knew that practice could only help, that preparing his players technically and psychologically for the moment was an investment of time and resources that might be rewarded.
And so it proved.
England can now look forward to a quarter-final against Sweden with the curse of the shootout lifted.
This really is a different England team. Not only have they lost the fear and tendency to panic which have cut short previous campaigns, they also have acquired something else that has always been present in their more successful rivals – Germany, Italy, Spain and Argentina, in particular.
England showed shrewdness, sharp-wittedness and cold calculation to ensure the referee was aware of every push, shove and pull inside the area until he finally awarded them a penalty when Kane tumbled under a challenge.
They allowed – and perhaps at times pushed – the Colombians to lose their tempers while keeping their own firmly under control.
“We are getting smarter, and maybe played by the same rules as the rest of the world,” Southgate said. “But we kept our dignity and our sportsmanship and if we were down it was because we were fouled. I am proud of the discipline,” he said.
They played like veterans, men rather than boys. A young team whose natural confidence and positivity has been nurtured rather than curtailed by their manager. Kane’s face said it all. It was over. The curse had ended but one sensed that for the players that was already someone else’s history.
Their own story, as Southgate noted before the game, is now for his players to write.