Ťhe fifth rendition of Vindaloo winds to a close. A can of lager is thrown into the air. By the time it lands with a spume of spray in among the thousands of fans congregating in Arena Square, another can has been launched skywards, and then another, and another, and another. Two hours before England play 德国, and Wembley Way is a monsoon of beer, sweat, rain, beer, songs, beer and hope.
The mood is euphoric, not sour; festive, not hostile. There is the occasional lyrical tribute to the RAF but by and large the minority of German fans shuffling towards the stadium are treated about as courteously as one might realistically expect. 这是, after all, a moment of celebration and optimism: before the bitten nails to come, before Harry Kane has fluffed a certain goal, before Thomas Müller has run clean through on goal with 10 minutes left, when the promise of 英国, and this 英国, still feels fresh and abundant.
The sun has come out. All day long Wembley has been blanketed in bullet-grey skies but as the teams emerge so does light. The Germans are greeted with a guttural, territorial rasp of revulsion, one that carries with it a solemn pledge: this may be a half-empty Wembley, a Wembley decked out in reptilian Uefa aquamarine, banded by adverts for weird postmodern brands (what on earth is Alipay anyway: a bank, an app, some kind of muesli?). But this is our home, this is our garden and you are not welcome to it.
The England players, 相比之下, are cheered like the conquering heroes they have not yet become. They come from all over: from Sunderland and Sheffield and Manchester and Leeds and Surrey and London. The towns on the flags around the stadium tell a similar story, a myriad of short and long journeys all converging on this point: London on a cool Tuesday night, where Gareth Southgate has again reached for his trusted back five like a favourite sweater.
The first 10 minutes belong decisively to Germany. They run through an England midfield that is simply not there: clocked off, out of office, working from home. Kalvin Phillips has his hands full with Toni Kroos, Declan Rice is pushing up on Leon Goretzka and Müller is simply dropping back into the space and doing whatever he wants. The next 20 minutes belong decisively to England. Raheem Sterling tucks in to plug the gaps in midfield.
The whole team pushes a little higher. Chances are still scarce but England are at least competing, attending, no longer viewing the ball as if it is some sort of radioactive catastrophe.
Meanwhile Germany are being beaten up. Luke Shaw crunches in on Müller while the referee’s back is turned. Kieran Trippier smashes through the back of Kroos. Phillips, who is up for this more than is probably healthy or indeed legal, biffs Kai Havertz and then, with no more German shirts nearby, biffs Trippier because he feels like it. To nobody’s surprise, he is booked before the half is out. The whistle blows. Pints are hastily purchased and downed. The mood is no longer festive and triumphant. It is restless, taut, fidgety.
Sterling is having his finest game in an England shirt. Ducking and weaving, shielding and recycling, driving and surging, holding and giving, and doing it at the right time. He is doing it pretty much all on his own, 也, as every time he looks up he sees only the exhausted Kane ahead of him, one arm hopelessly raised, like a man drowning in synthetic grass. Behind him the wonderful Joshua Kimmich is growing in influence. Neither team has been outstanding. But it feels as if a single goal will kill it either way.
It comes, stirringly, from Sterling. Shaw, gutsy and brilliant, plays a cross that puts three German players on their bellies in an instant. And the kid Raheem, having started the move, carried on running and checked his movement to stay onside, has the ball rolling towards him. This kid who as an England player has spent years feeling the cold blade of cruelty and hatred against his neck, this kid whose very presence in the white shirt feels like its own act of resistance, this kid who at 26 is no longer a kid any more. It is Raheem who scores. Within seconds the aquamarine sheet covering the seats behind the goal has been trampled to shreds by delirious, dancing shoes.
Germany are charging around like ghosts: airless, shapeless, bereft of life. Müller runs clean through on goal. Müller misses and drops to his knees. Fifty yards away Mats Hummels holds his head in his hands. This will almost certainly be the last tournament game for both of them. Minutes later Lothar Matthäus – wearing Shaw’s shirt – wins the ball in midfield, passes to Jack Grealish, who crosses for Kane. Two-nil; even Harry scored.
And so back out they pour, out on to the streets of Sunderland and Sheffield and Manchester and Leeds and Surrey and London. In a way – and with apologies to Scotland – this was probably the country’s first genuine national post-Covid event. And in the admittedly dizzying glow of victory it is hard to shake the idea that on some level England needed this: this coming-out party, this fleeting and illusory moment of harmony. There are tougher and taller tests to come. But for a few halcyon days England, this England, will feel like a slightly more beguiling place.