England are the immovable stink of Euro 2024 - long may it continue

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The Three Lions will play the Netherlands in Wednesday’s semi-final

I knew Trent had scored his penalty before the ball had even been struck. Not because I had some kind of undying cosmic faith in him, or because I am a regular scrawny Mackem Nostradamus, but because my dear colleague Matt Gregory, sports journalist as he claims to be, had somehow managed to arrange his wedding to clash wholeheartedly with England’s Euro 2024 quarter-final against Switzerland, and the stream that the catering staff were watching was slightly ahead of ours. Little word to the wise, turns out the only thing more nerve-wracking than a best man speech is a best man speech delivered twenty minutes after your country has put you through the hell of a penalty shootout.

Except, in some respects, this wasn’t hell. Or at least, not the usual nauseating, soul-melting variety that we have become accustomed to in shootouts of yore. England were almost eerily calm in both their approach and their execution. Cole Palmer, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka, Ivan Toney, and the aforementioned Alexander-Arnold all scored with minimal fuss. Five out of five spot kicks were dispatched with ease, Jordan Pickford saved assuredly from Manuel Akanji, and the Three Lions were through to a third semi-final in four major tournaments. In other words, England were decidedly un-English.

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In amongst the soothed anguish, there were narratives aplenty; Saka’s honey sweet redemption, Toney eye-balling Yann Sommer like the psychopathic antagonist of an Oscar-bait thriller, Pickford coming in clutch with his water bottle crib sheet. But the most startling aspect remained the overwhelming sense of control. Lessons, it would seem, have been learnt.

And now, somehow, England stumble onwards once more. Saturday’s performance, or at least the parts I saw between dessert courses and phone screen buffers, was an improvement on what has come prior - a more balanced, rational offering - but it was by no means perfect. It still took a late moment of divinity from the sprightly Saka to wrench the contest into extra time, and three shots on target in two hours of football does not exactly hint towards a jollification of attacking intent.

But right now, that matters for little. England will play the Netherlands on Wednesday evening, with a billing in Sunday’s final at stake. At no point has Gareth Southgate’s side looked like worthy champions of Europe, and yet, almost incalculably, they are now within 180 minutes, potentially, of becoming exactly that. We are rapidly approaching a moment in which the ends could make the means wholly irrelevant.

I am increasingly coming to think of the Three Lions’ grizzled campaign like this; a couple of weeks before the tournament began I bought a secondhand England shirt from Vinted. It was a long-sleeved version of the Euro 2004 away kit, the Umbro number with the white crosses on each shoulder. When it arrived, it stank to high heaven. Not like, slightly odorous, but fully, unwearably disgusting - as if it had been rolled out for a particularly gruelling game of five-a-side in the baking zenith of a summer two decades ago and left to rot in a long-forgotten bin bag beneath the dank rafters of an attic ever since. No combination of potions and powders could shift the smell; not white vinegar, not baking soda, not industrial grade detergent - nothing.

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Eventually, after four separate hour-long soaks in a bathtub full of Vanish Oxi Action (other cleaning brands are available) I managed to coax it to a state of acceptability. I then wore it out to the drab group stage draw against Denmark, further masked in a fog of aftershaves and body sprays and an added haze of Febreze. And yet somehow, the stench still lingers deep in the fabric, lurking amongst the synthetic fibres, occasionally rearing its head when I lift an arm in exasperation or stand in an unventilated space.

England are that stink. Unpleasing, yes, but obstinate, immovable. It has not been pretty, and at this stage it would be naive to suggest it ever will be, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be either. All they have to do is cling to the polyester just a little longer, and maybe they can achieve the unthinkable. If they do, it won’t matter how they got there - even if they leave behind gallons upon gallons of murky brown water and a thin film of grime on the ceramic - only that they did.

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