June 25, 2018
Well, that was fun, in between the painful bits. First, it is necessary to issue the disclaimers. Yes, Panama unravelled like a cheap cigar in Nizhny Novgorod. Faced with England’s excellent first-half movement, they fell apart like a wicker-rimmed hat left to bake in the sun. At times Panama played a genuinely ugly brand of football, hacking and whingeing and spoiling like the bloke you never invite back to the midweek seven-a-side.
In between this England performed with incisive, cold-blooded composure to win 6-1 and rack up their highest World Cup score, an unarguable, entirely deserved entry in the tournament history books for this well-drilled and highly mobile team.
Albeit they did so against opponents who were often wretched, the poverty of Panama’s play raising questions about the upshot of opening the great competition up to more nations in the chase for cash.
It was not just the fouling and moaning. Although it was mainly the fouling and moaning. It was also the self-defeating nature of it all. Panama can play, as they showed here at times. But they came to spoil. Before the World Cup opener in Moscow at least one Russian volunteer could be seen lurking on the main concourse with a sign reading “Free Hugs”. Perhaps Panama should try something similar pre-match just to get it out of their system, so irresistible was the urge to grip and grapple and grasp, a ludicrous pantomime of man-on-man hug‑action that led directly to two first‑half goals.
Enough of that, though. England were the story here, producing the one thing that has been missing in the orderly progress of the last year or so: a ballsy, freewheeling all-out thumping of game but moderate opposition.
Harry Kane had a wonderful time when he wasn’t being strangled. This was not one of the classic hat‑tricks, comprising two wonderfully spanked penalty kicks and a deflection Kane knew nothing about. But he ran off to safety 18 minutes after half‑time with five goals in 1.75 World Cup games, equal with Geoff Hurst as England second all-time scorer in the competition, behind Gary Lineker with 10.
Kane will take the headlines. But it was a wonderful afternoon also for Jesse Lingard, who will long remember Panama, possibly even after the bruises have faded. Revenge is best served cold. That was never likely to happen for Lingard on an afternoon where the air inside the stadium sat like a steam-cooker, the kind of drowsy, heavy heat that hits you in the chest and sinks down into the lungs.
But Lingard did something excellent here, responding to some blunt and painful treatment by running harder, playing with more rather than less verve on the half‑spin in those forward positions and helping to kill the game in the first half.
The Nizhny Novgorod Stadium is another Russian mega-drome, beached on its side like an enormous white Wagon Wheel. England’s fans had staked out their upper tiers with a row of flags hanging limp from the railings, the usual tour of the Isles from Bury to Stoke to Southampton and Hull. What followed was glorious reward for all that travel and expense, the post-Marseilles anxiety, the constant boisterous support.
It was reward, too, for Lingard, who is not the flashiest player nor an obvious star on the stats. Yet he has become one of Gareth Southgate’s reliables, an ever-willing runner with a fine touch and the occasional moment of brilliance.
Some have sneered at his fun, extrovert persona, his groovy range of celebrations (there was a little Fortnite nod here). But look past the tribal stuff and Lingard is also something uplifting: an academy kid living the dream, wringing every last drop of life and joy from a starring role for his boyhood mega-club, now doing the same in front of the world in an England shirt.