If the young England team that clinched its spot in the knockout phase with a game to spare truly represents a kinder, gentler, more likeable Three Lions, the face of this transformation from overrated and entitled would-be world beaters to a side that, you know, might actually be capable of making it beyond the quarterfinals at a World Cup for the first time since 1990 is undoubtedly Harry Kane.
This much is obvious. The 24-year-old England captain – the youngest of the 32 skippers who went to Russia – has more than lived up to his pre-tournament billing. With five goals through England’s first two games, both of them wins, Kane leads the competition in scoring ahead of the knockout stages.
No Englishman has won the Golden Boot award as top scorer at a World Cup since Gary Lineker bagged a half-dozen at Mexico 1986. But it’s not just the goals that sets Kane apart from his more recent predecessors.
It seems somewhat fitting that Kane will lead England out against Belgium on the same day that Wayne Rooney, the man he replaced as the permanent Three Lions captain, made his big-money move to MLS club D.C. United official. Rooney was a headliner among of a group of players that had often been referred to a Golden Generation; it also included the likes of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Frank Lampard.
That collection of stars was considered the country’s best hope of reclaiming what many English fans felt was their rightful place atop the global pecking order by winning a major tournament for the first time since hoisting the World Cup on home soil way back in 1966.
Yet for all their undeniable talent, those players never managed to reach a semifinal with England, let alone a title match, and failed to even qualify for the European Championship in 2008. The off-field glare was probably a factor. Beckham, the captain at the 2002 and ’06 World Cups, was a tabloid darling because of his model looks and pop star wife as much his all-world right foot. Some of his teammates no doubt resented the attention the flashy Beckham received.
The gruff and unapproachable Gerrard wore the armband in 2010 and ’14, but those were really Rooney’s teams. He was England’s best player in both tournaments, neither of which went well, and was undoubtedly Beckham’s successor when it came to relentless media attention away from the field. This carried on all the way through Rooney’s international swan song at Euro 2016, where he served as captain of a team that was deservingly eliminated by tiny Iceland in its first do-or-die match.
All of which makes the no-drama Kane a breath of fresh air. He’s quick to smile and engage the press. He would rather play golf than go out for a night on the town. Away from the game he seems downright boring, actually, and that has to be a good thing as far as England manager Gareth Southgate is concerned. Even Kane’s somewhat awkward playing style – he relies on movement, anticipation and killer finishing more than pure athletic ability — can make you forget how good he actually is.
For the first time in a long time, the Three Lions are all about the football. Rather than succumb to the unrelenting pressure of the famous white shirt and the typically unrealistic expectations of its supporters, this England side has played with a visceral joy in Russia.
There’s a long way to go, but with Kane leading the charge, this summer just feels different.
Southgate has created a more open, casual environment than the more traditional coaches of England’s recent past. There’s a cautious optimism around this squad, which is one of the least experienced in the tournament, that appears to have insulated it from outside forces.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Raheem Sterling and John Stones – all of them even younger than Kane – have played major roles so far.
Kane is the undisputed front man, though. And right now he can do no wrong, as the inadvertent deflection that completed his hat trick against Panama last weekend showed.
It remains to be seen if and when that luck will run out in Russia, but a deep run doesn’t seem unrealistic this time around. This is Kane’s team now, and it will be for many years to come.
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• MVPs and LVPs of the group stage
• Dates, kickoff times for the Round of 16
• What could replace yellow cards as FIFA’s last-ditch tiebreaker?