England’s history of semi-finals are often tales of heroic failure as the team valiantly tries to win but ultimately ends up failing at the final hurdle, often in the most emotional of circumstances.
Gareth Southgate and some members of his squad have been here before so what can the past teach us about England’s previous semi-finals and what can they do to avoid more heartbreak?
England 2 -1 Portugal, 1966 World Cup
This is the one that England won and it was the first time that they had ever reached a semi-final so this should have spurred the nation on to more footballing success, right? Sadly not, but at least they’ve got one. Anyway, the game itself was a memorable contest as two Bobby Charlton goals gave England a 2-0 lead before Eusebio, one of the greatest players of all-time, scored for Portugal from the penalty. It wasn’t enough for Eusebio and co though as the great man left the field in tears. You know what happens next for England.
Yugoslavia 1 - 0 England, Euro 1968
This is where it all started to go wrong for England. Just two years after their World Cup success England failed at a semi-final, which was a semi-final in all but name. You see, back in 1968 only four teams qualified for the Euros (this wasn’t changed until 1980) so, therefore, the first game of England’s tournament was a semi-final. If that wasn’t already underwhelming enough, their 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia in Florence – thanks to a Dragan Dzajic goal – was a humbling experience for the then world champions as Alan Mullery became the first England player to ever be sent off. A game to forget then. They at least won the third-place play-off a few days later.
England 1 - 1 West Germany, World Cup 1990 (West Germany win 3-4 on penalties)
It would take England more than 20 years to reach another semi-final and it would go down as one of the most famous matches in English football history. Once again England found themselves in Italy but, unlike in 1968, they managed to score, with Gary Lineker equalising with 10 minutes to spare after Andreas Brehme’s opener. Extra-time added more drama to what was already a feisty affair as a young Paul Gascoigne, who had been one of the players of the tournament, got a booking, which would have forced him out of the final – cue the famous scene of him in tears as Lineker signals his concern to the bench. Penalties arrive and England’s torturous relationship with shootouts was born after Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missed from 12 yards, sending eventual champions West Germany through to the final. Unlike 1968, England would not win the third-place play-off.
England 1 - 1 Germany, Euro 1996 (Germany win 5-6 on penalties)
What is it with England playing Germany in semi-finals during the 1990s? Six years after their agony in Turin, it was another set of England players who suffered defeat and in similar circumstances. With the scores level at 1-1 following early goals from Alan Shearer and Stefan Kuntz respectively, the game again went to extra-time. Gascoigne missed from just inches out in the extra period which would have surely won the game for England. It wasn’t to be though as the Three Lions endured more heartbreak during a penalty shootout as Gareth Southgate missed the only kick of the shootout. The moment was talked about for years, but we think he’s done enough to make up for it now.
England 1 - 2 Croatia, World Cup 2018
It would take England another 20 years to overcome that loss at Wembley in 1996 and this time it was Southgate who was managing the team and something was different about this squad. There was little drama to these matches, the players carried themselves with dignity and poise and they had even won a penalty shootout earlier in the tournament. However, England’s semi-final nightmare continued, despite being given an early lead thanks to a superb Kieran Trippier free-kick. Croatia, though, were a more mature and skilled team full of players with big-match experience and their talent shone through, thanks to goals from Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic in extra-time, forcing England to again heroically crash out of the competition in Russia.
This loss felt different though. There wasn’t anything to cry or get upset about, nor was there a scapegoat to blame the loss on. They’d just come up against a better team on the day and that positive mentality appears to have maintained itself and transitioned through to this current team who are going into Wednesday’s semi-final still yet to concede a goal and playing with an air of confidence not seen since...well, 1966.