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England’s imperfect path to the Euro 2024 final might be what leads it to glory


DORTMUND, Germany — Jude Bellingham called it “attitude.” Gareth Southgate says it is “character.” Kobbie Mainoo touted it as “indescribable,” but then tried describing it anyway.

Whatever it is, England has found something at Euro 2024, a secret sauce perhaps, that has done little for the attractiveness of its soccer but absolutely everything for its ability to grind out wins.

And here it is now, headed for Berlin and a Sunday date where Spain, and destiny, and history, must all be battled. What about national anguish, too, and the rule for so long that if there isn’t an obvious way to mess it up, England will find one regardless?

Those things, at least, may have been conquered already, which is just as well, for Spain is a formidable enough foe without a bunch of extra burdens.

It wasn’t usually like this with England, all these late heroics and shootout victories and, more than anything, some other nation nursing the wounds of oh-so-close and wiping tears and biting back envy.

Normally, that was England’s fate, the unlucky losers, the fall guys, the penalty capitulators, the plucky departees.

What it has now is a savvy group that can weather some storms and, it turns out, still be here.

“I am really proud of the boys,” Bellingham said, after England’s 2-1 semifinal victory over the Netherlands was sealed by Ollie Watkins’ injury-time winner. “The reaction, attitude and mentality. Quality is one thing, but those characteristics you cannot learn in training – you get it from experience and each other.”

Head coach Southgate’s England is made of stern enough stuff to rebound from adversity and tactically smart enough to have a Plan B and C that’s really quite good, too. 

That’s what allows you to progress even when not everything runs to plan. We didn’t know this about England, honestly. It was assumed Southgate’s squad would live or die by the performances of its best players, because it has some big-time stars with huge reputations. Not so.

“This showed the modern England way but also the resilience and the character of the group,” Southgate said. “We have had some incredible nights. These games have been dramatic because the goals have come so late.”

England ADVANCES to finals after incredible match against Netherlands | Euro Today

England ADVANCES to finals after incredible match against Netherlands | Euro Today

We didn’t know it could survive Bellingham not having a particularly good month, save for his remarkable intervention in the round of 16 with that equalizing bicycle kick against Slovakia.

Or Harry Kane seemingly severely hampered with movement and playing in a system where he gets precious few touches. 

Or Phil Foden being unable to bring his Premier League player of the year form to the Euros, although his display against the Dutch was surely his best so far.

Or not knowing whether a back three or back four was going to get the job done defensively, and tinkering around with it not just mid-tournament, but in the midst of the knockout part of the event.

Usually by now England would be home, always in fact. Never before has a final been reached on foreign soil. Once the glum trip home happened, often greeted by a hero’s welcome, there would inevitably be much talk of how close they came and how it might have all been different if not for this and that and the other thing.

Instead, England is celebrating, for a little while at least, before the problems of Lamine Yamal, Nico Williams, Rodri, Dani Olmo and the rest of Spain’s stacked line-up loom.

“We are all buzzing,” Mainoo, 19 and growing in confidence with every midfield performance, said. “It has been such a journey and we have built on old performances. The only way is up – time to put us in history.”

[Related: How a bench conversation sparked England’s historic semifinal goal]

That last word sounds different coming from this iteration of England, The burden of history, for whatever reason, their own youth, the way Southgate frames it, the confidence built even amid heartbreak three years ago, doesn’t seem to sit so heavy.

England is an underdog for the final, but it has an opportunity, a special one. And it has the magic touch of discovering new ways to win. Will it be enough?

Netherlands vs. England Highlights | UEFA Euro 2024 | Semifinals

Netherlands vs. England Highlights | UEFA Euro 2024 | Semifinals

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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