Turn themselves into the country’s first international footballing European champions, and they will become immortals.
Tomorrow represents a chance to show nice guys can win and these Three Lions genuinely can.
Italy were the team of the group stage, playing exhilarating football no other side – certainly not England with two goals for, none against – could match. In the knockout phase they have been more reassuringly Italian, dogged in defence and unafraid of gamesmanship. Spain outplayed them in the semi-final, but they came through a penalty shoot-out. They pose a serious threat to England but the same is true in reverse.
Sterling’s tumble to win a penalty that was soft if you were charitable, disgraceful if you were coming at it from the opposite angle, shows England cannot be holier than thou but the standards they are setting off the field are something to be proud of, and a reason why they are so good on it.
This has been a wonderful tournament for Harrogate-based manager Gareth Southgate, who has impressed with his bravery and tactical nous, taking England to the final in ways it seemed almost everyone in the country has doubted and questioned.
Players as good as Sterling, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Mason Mount, Harry Kane, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Kalvin Phillips, Harry Maguire and many others would get into most teams in this tournament, yet some are struggling to get into England’s. But if it was just about ability, Switzerland would not have knocked France out, the Czech Republic would not have beaten the Netherlands.
This is a squad of great character and togetherness, much of which comes from a desire to do the right thing by their team-mates and others.
Since this tournament started, barely an interview has gone by without Southgate expressing his pleasure at putting smiles on English faces after the most horrendous time in many of our lives.
It was depressing when stories slipped out last week about the unhappiness – let us get it right, envy – some politicians feel towards Southgate, whose pre-tournament open letter asked his players to show pride and patriotism, and not use focusing on football to excuse themselves of social responsibility. Fans were urged to be less unpleasant on social media. Disgraceful.
Most offensive was the condescending suggestion from people with speech-writers that the words used by England’s intelligent and eloquent manager were “suspiciously well-written”.
Most of the last week has been far more heart-warming, such as when Rashford sent a schoolchild a PlayStation to thank him for charitable work, Mount made a beeline for an ecstatic young fan to hand her his shirt at full-time on Wednesday, and Grealish video messaged an eight year-old leukaemia sufferer. Now it has emerged the NHS Charities Together will receive the lion’s share of the £9.5m of bonuses, plus match fees, England players will donate to charity if they win.
“Of course, my players and I will be judged on winning matches,” wrote Southgate.
On that too they can be proud.
This disciplined team has conceded once in seven games. Old faithfuls who got them to a World Cup semi-final three years ago – such as Kyle Walker, John Stones and Maguire – have been helped by fresh blood. Declan Rice and Leeds United’s Phillips have brought protection, and like Mount, Grealish, Foden and Saka, added technical ability.
After a slow start, Kane has become a far more rounded version of the player who won the golden boot in Russia. A goal tomorrow and he will have another – two wins him it outright.
Having so much talent sounds great, but is not always.
It only works because of an acceptance everyone has to play a part and egos must be parked. There could be no better person to lead that than Southgate, quietly brilliant in 57 England appearances, but who did not kick a ball at the 2002 World Cup.
When Southgate played for England, they were a quarter-final team. A week ago they were a semi-final team, as shown at the 2018 World Cup, 2019 Nations League and 2020 European Championship. Now they have gone up another level.
By Monday, England may or may not have a European Championship-winning team but they will have one the nation can take pride in regardless, and young enough for this not to be the end of the journey.
This is more than a football team, but it is a pretty special football team.