The Russian city of Samara is best known internationally as the centre of the Soviet space exploration industry and the home of Yuri Gagarin, who returned here after becoming the first person to complete an orbit of Earth. In England it is now destined to be remembered as the place where either the national team triumphed to reach a World Cup semi-final or arguably their best chance since 1966 to win a trophy fell apart.
Just before 6pm local time on Saturday, Gareth Southgate’s team will walk on to the pitch at the Cosmos Arena, a 44,918-seat stadium designed to resemble a spacecraft, in keeping with the city’s history. It will be 3pm in England and the streets will be deserted as people converge at home, in pubs and at fan sites to watch the World Cup quarter-final against Sweden. Die-hard followers and those with only a passing interest in football will unite as a nation holds its collective breath.
England’s victory over Colombia on penalties on Tuesday night was watched by 24.4 million people on ITV at its peak. Saturday’s match on the BBC could easily exceed those numbers, dwarfing figures for other major sporting events such as Andy Murray’s two Wimbledon triumphs and England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup final win.
Southgate himself knows this could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance for England’s current crop. “Although our team will be better in two years, we might not have this opportunity again,” the 47-year-old manager said. On paper it is England’s biggest fixture since 2006,when they reached the quarter-finals and were beaten on penalties by Portugal.
If they win they are in the territory of Italia 90 – Pavarotti, Paul Gascoigne’s tears, penalty heartbreak – and Euro 96, which was held in England and in which Southgate played. England’s side of the draw has been cleared of the big-name teams, with Spain and Germany among those suffering premature exits. The route to the final is, on paper, more straightforward that England could have dreamed.
Individually, this team is not as sparklingly talented as the so-called golden generation that fell to Portugal in 2006, a group of players who many believed had the ability to win a World Cup. But Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have reflected on the rot within those squads, divisions based on club loyalties, which meant some could not bear to utter more than a couple of words to each other during training camps. Celebrity was a big factor, too, with David Beckham and Wayne Rooney as likely to be on the front page of the tabloid newspapers as the back.
The term Wag was coined during that tournament in recognition of the colourful antics of Victoria Beckham, Cheryl Cole and Coleen Rooney in the normally sleepy spa resort of Baden-Baden.
Southgate is presiding over a quieter vibe in Russia at the team training camp in the seaside town of Repino, on the Gulf of Finland. Morale is high and demonstrations of arrogance are swiftly called out. The players’ families are staying at a smart hotel in St Petersburg, 45 minutes’ drive away, and are flown to matches on charter planes, seeing their loved ones only after games and on occasional rest days.
Harry Kane is the top scorer in the tournament, with six goals so far, and is key to England’s chances of going further in this tournament. But an exposé on his private life feels as unlikely as the mild-mannered Southgate headbutting his opposite number on the touchline. Captain Kane, 24, does not drink, is married to a woman he has known since primary school and gives the FA’s media team very little concern with interviews that suggest he is a thoroughly decent human being, if a touch anodyne.
Seasoned observers here believe this is the most likeable England team in at least 15 years and one that appeals to a younger generation. Ukip and other far-right groups have sought to attach themselves to England’s success over the past three weeks. But it has been pointed out to them that this diverse squad reflects multicultural England.
Raheem Sterling spent his early years in Jamaica, Eric Dier grew up in Portugal, Jesse Lingard’s grandparents came from St Vincent, while Marcus Rashford, the 20-year-old who came off the bench to coolly score a penalty in the shootout against Colombia, can trace his lineage to the West Indian island of St Kitts and Nevis.
The England supporter base is similarly altered from previous major tournaments. The expense of travelling around Russia, where distances between host cities are vast, means there are more fans from wealthier backgrounds.
An estimated 3,000 fans have made the journey here to Samara. When they file through the airport-style security at the stadium on the city’s barren outskirts, they will have a sneaking feeling that maybe, just maybe, football is coming home.