LONDON (AP) — They spilled out into their villages and lined the narrow country roads — in some places four or five rows deep — to wave, cheer, hold up banners and flutter flags as England’s team bus left its St. George’s Park training base one final time.
Young boys and girls were hoisted onto shoulders. Adults wearing white or red England jerseys had their phones at the ready. All desperate to catch a glimpse of the players as they embarked on the journey to Wembley Stadium on Saturday on the eve of the nation’s biggest soccer match in 55 years.
Already, England captain Harry Kane and his teammates had been shown letters that had been sent to coach Gareth Southgate and the squad from Queen Elizabeth II and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wishing them well and praising their conduct and spirit during the European Championship.
For this popular England team, it’s time to deliver.
“Now,” Kane said, “we want to go and win the trophy for everybody.”
Part of Southgate’s job since the historic win over Denmark in the semifinals on Wednesday has been to keep the players grounded, to make sure the same routines are followed, to try to get messages across in training.
Italy awaits in Sunday’s final at Wembley and, naturally, it will be England’s toughest game so far.
But Southgate doesn’t believe his players need to push too hard.
“It’s not necessarily about (being) better,” he said. “In finals actually, the key is to hit your normal level. Lots of teams in finals end up underperforming. You don’t have to find a level beyond where you’ve ever gone before.
“It’s about doing what you’re good at, transferring what you do everyday on the training pitch to the match.”
Easier said than done.
The pressure has never been so high on this group of England players. The national team reached the semifinals at the 2018 World Cup in Russia but they were a long way from home, unaware of much of the hysteria.
This is different. They can see it before their very eyes.
“Seeing the fans on the streets like they have been, the reception we had as we pulled into the hotel here and as we were leaving St. George’s Park, it just has shown us how big an occasion it is,” Kane said. “In Russia, we were over there and in our own bubble. We could see videos of what it was like back home but we couldn’t really experience it ourselves.”
In her letter, the queen reminisced about the national team’s only previous outing in the final of a major competition, saying that in 1966 she was “fortunate” to present the World Cup to then-England captain Bobby Moore and see what it means for the nation to win a trophy.
She hopes, the letter read, that “history will record not only your success but also the spirit, commitment and pride with which you have conducted yourselves.”
Indeed, it is a very likeable team that will take to the field against Italy. But are they too nice?
Kane doesn’t think so.
“That’s the personality of a lot of players in our squad — they are humble, they are respectful but I think we have a lot of focus and determination to win,” he said. “We have shown that in the last tournament we played and going into this one, knocking down barriers that have been there for our country for a long, long time.”
It’s Kane who will first get his hands on the Henri Delaunay Trophy if England wins. It would be one of the biggest moments in the history of English sports.
Kane looks in the mood to take that step, having scored all four of his goals this tournament in the knockout stage to leave him one behind leading scorers Cristiano Ronaldo and Patrick Schick.
No longer are there concerns about his fitness, or whether his head is in the right place amid links with a big-money move to Manchester City from Tottenham.
Kane said he has learned from the 2018 World Cup, when he won the Golden Boot after scoring all of his goals before the quarterfinals.
“Not just physically but mentally, maybe I just lost a little bit toward the latter stages (of the World Cup),” he said, “so I was going into this one with a bit more experience. It’s about not getting too carried away, whether I score or don’t score.
“It’s all part of the learning curve of playing in major tournaments and gaining that experience. Hopefully I have enough left to finish the job tomorrow.”
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