On a blisteringly hot afternoon at Wembley Stadium, London, the England football team managed a feat that has been beyond its predecessors: winning the opening match of a European Championship tournament.
A narrow 1-0 victory against Croatia, through a Raheem Sterling goal in the second half, signalled how much this England team has developed since losing against the same opponents in the World Cup semi-finals in 2018.
In the three years since, the Croatians have lost star veterans, such as Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic. By contrast, England have drafted in exciting talents like Manchester City’s Phil Foden, 21, and Chelsea’s Mason Mount, 22.
And whereas in the World Cup, Croatia had initially fallen behind only to gradually pass their way into dominance, on Sunday, England closed out the match with a minimum of alarm.
The game had begun with plenty of doubts, though. England manager Gareth Southgate sprung surprises with his team selection. Kieran Trippier, known as a right-sided defender, was chosen at left back. Winger Raheem Sterling, who has suffered an indifferent season with his club Manchester City, was selected ahead of Aston Villa’s in-form midfielder Jack Grealish. Those choices meant Southgate was sure to face fierce criticism if England lost.
And there was doubt over what sort of support the team would receive from the 20,000 fans in attendance.
England released a statement on Saturday announcing their intention to continue to “take the knee” ahead of the game as a “mechanism of peacefully protesting against discrimination, injustice and inequality.” Just as in other recent England matches, the gesture received a smattering of boos from some fans, who were then drowned out by louder applause and cheering by most supporters.
Once the game began, it was clear that Southgate had benefited from picking from a squad that is packed with players aged under 23 — young by the standards of international football — who have built experience by playing more minutes in leading club competitions than any other England squad since Euro 2004.
The team’s energy was seen in the first 20 minutes. England engaged in fearsome pressing — chasing their opponents in an effort to retrieve the ball — and direct running at goal.
Foden hit the post in the fifth minute and Croatia were pinned back in defence. But soon enough, Croatia’s midfielders Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic began to pass their team back into the match. A cagier, somewhat dull, contest ensued.
“The heat was incredible,” said Southgate. “There were moments where the tempo dropped but for the majority of the game we were in control. We didn’t give them many opportunities and we looked dangerous.”
It took until the hour mark for the game to spark. Midfielder Kalvin Phillips skipped past Croatian tackles and put Sterling through on goal.
Sterling, who had grown up in a council estate in the shadow of Wembley, forced a shot through goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic to score his first goal in a major international tournament. “It’s my back garden,” he said. “I had to score.”
England managed a flurry of attacks to try to force a second goal. But the game petered out into a low-scoring victory. It was a win against good, but not great, opposition, the sort that England has often fail to muster in past tournaments.
They next face Scotland and Czech Republic, fixtures against lower-ranked opponents that could help the team develop into a slicker unit. That will be needed, as England faces a potential tie in the first knockout round against either France, Portugal or Germany — among the favourites.
Bigger tests then lie ahead. At the final whistle, the crowd loudly serenaded the team with “Three Lions”, an anthem first sung at Euro 96, the last time England played in a big tournament on home soil.
As the players soaked it in on a lap of appreciation, no boos were heard, just mirth among sunburned fans in white shirts. These supporters left with hope that this team could blossom further, as they surely must, to reach the final at the same stadium next month.