All adversity is relative but rarely is adversity as overblown than when applied to sport.
But sporting adversity is very real. Just ask the majority of those here at Wembley on Wednesday night. Even held within the context of one match, it transfers to all associated. The impactful pain of being punched in the stomach, that fear that you may not be able to get back up – it’s felt by all, not just those out there on the pitch.
You will never get used to the sound of 60,000 people having the wind knocked out of them on 30 minutes. The same lungs that brought the house down with “Sweet Caroline” emptying in anti-song, the dull gasp of terror that not only had Denmark taken a 1-0 lead in this semi-final, but England had conceded their first goal of these Euro2020.
The previous 480 minutes of play were blissful. Not necessarily easy or without danger, but managed with the confidence of a team that, above all else, have imbued the English public with belief. Five games, four wins, Germany beaten along the way. What was not to ride with?
But belief in an England football team is brittle. Not because of those wearing the shirt right now, but those before them who have taught us not to ask for too much.
The goal against was always going to come. This is football, where markers lose concentration, “gaffes” is its own subgenre of entertainment and, unofficially, a beach ball has a Premier League goal to its name. It was a blow that could be worn better elsewhere – alongside the four goals against Ukraine, for example. But when it arrived, its mental toll felt three-fold.
To go behind. For it to be a Mikkel Damsgaard free-kick in an opening 30 minutes that England, on balance, were dictating. The dive of Jordan Pickford somewhat awry, especially with the unfavourable slow-motion replays highlighting how much more central it struck the net rather than top-corner. Altogether, a potent mix of dismay, panic and “oh, not again”.
And, well, it wasn’t again.
They say you learn more about yourself in adversity. And that’s true to a point for this England team. Because, really, they’ve always known what they are about, what they can achieve and how to go about it. And perhaps the only thing this concession served was to show the rest of us that was the case. That we should believe everything we hear and see of them.
Even after going behind in a match of this importance, they did not snatch or flail in possession, no matter how desperate they may have been to cancel it out. They dusted themselves down, kicked off once more, and began again.
England prove defiant in face of adversity
Passes were a bit snappier, the runs a bit more energetic. Kalvin Phillips a bit more everywhere. All within the plans that had got England to this point.
The equaliser in its own way was a testament to that. Harry Kane dropped deep again to take some blows, only this time swiveled and passed behind for Bukayo Saka. The Arsenal winger, skittish in the opening half-hour, had no qualms carrying the ball into the box and biding his time when he had previously rushed. His wait was long enough for Raheem Sterling to make exactly the same run he had made moments earlier only to miss from six yards out.
Sterling did not score. That, instead, was attributed to Simon Kjaer who, without Sterling’s desire to possibly fail again, would not have needed to slide back towards his own goal.
Such perseverance was harnessed into the second half and both periods of extra time. As Denmark tired and a penalty shootout now the looming threat, the flexes were a little quicker. Sterling’s tumble in the box and Kane’s two attempts to convert one penalty. And with that done, Gareth Southgate reverted to the norm with Jack Grealish’s removal before the second period of extra time having only brought the great saviour on in the 69th minute.
With the full-time whistle, there it was. Confirmation that England treat in-game glory and adversity one of the same. Measured, competent, and a far cry from when crash and thunder seemed to be the only way. Calmness in all guises for different situations.
Kalvin Phillips, John Stones, Harry Maguire and Declan Rice of England look dejected after conceding
It was also at the full-time whistle we got a true look at what it is to thrive from adversity and still end up on the losing side. As Denmark’s players fell to the floor, energy sapped, legs empty, emotions drained, all the jubilation around them was not theirs. Yet 10 minutes on, as they roused themselves to stand in front of their own fans, the tears carried a different, perhaps greater meaning.
It was almost a month ago when Christian Eriksen fell to the floor in the Danes’ first match at these European Championships against Finland. The pain of seeing a brother in arms stricken so far outweighing this silly game, for all the joy it brings.
And while they did harness it, this was not simply riding the crest of an emotional wave through to the semi-finals. Sure, they dug deeper, dealing with the pain and building back up from defeats in their first two group matches. Yet they did so with a reinforced understanding of what they knew of themselves: how well they could play, how much trouble they could cause, and just how strong they really were. Who knows how much of that would have revealed itself without Eriksen’s collapse. But how they have emerged over the last month says a heck of a lot more about what they do and, even if only for a month, why they do it.
Perhaps that’s the main takeaway here on a night of contrasting emotions and wildly contrasting ideas of struggle. Real-world tragedy and sport-manufactured adversity puts everything in its own perspective. And in two different ways, has conjured a renewed sense of self. Both teams here are embodiments of that.
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