A little joy points England down the road to success at World Cup

Huge games often become tight, stuttering, nervy affairs, because the World Cup matters, and it matters to billions of people. But soccer isn't supposed to be dentistry. It's supposed to be fun. Kids know that. Adults forget.

3-0 knockout victory over Senegal has millions smiling in British Isles

England's Jordan Henderson celebrates after scoring his team's first goal in a 3-0 win over Senegal on Sunday. (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.

England's Round of 16 game against Senegal turned on two opposite-feeling moments. The first showed us how England might lose. The second showed us how England might win.

Senegal had the best early chance when Boulaye Dia fired a mid-range shot in the 31st minute. English goalkeeper Jordan Pickford did well to stop it with his outstretched arm and immediately upbraided his defenders. They walked away from him like scolded children.

Eight minutes later, Harry Kane freed teenage Jude Bellingham with a beautiful ball down the left, which Bellingham cut back into the box. After Jordan Henderson side-footed the pass into the net, he pointed at Bellingham, ran to embrace him, and pointed at him again. 

England was unlocked by that instant of shared and selfless glory — before the end of the half, Bellingham combined with Phil Foden and Kane, who added another — and romped to a place in the quarter-finals with an emphatic 3-0 win.

"Mentality was top from the beginning," Kane said. "Another knockout win, over the years they have not been easy for England."

So far, at least, there has been a singular way to advance in this otherwise stifling World Cup: The team that plays with the most abandon, the most exuberance, and the most regard for one another wins. Nobody, Pickford should note, has been remonstrated to victory here.

English players and fans celebrate their win. (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Less belief, more enjoyment

It's a mushy-seeming idea that joy might help win soccer games, normally seen as headier contests of tactics and resolve. Talk of "vibes" is anti-scientific.

But plenty of coaches, Canada's John Herdman among them, subscribe to the equally whimsical notion that the bigger believers come out on top. What if the actual secret to success is adjacent but different? What if it's less about who believes in themselves, and more about who's enjoying themselves?

Earlier Sunday, the French, led by a playfully lethal Kylian Mbappé, also ran rampant in a 3-1 win over Poland in their own Round of 16 matchup. 

"This is the competition of my dreams," Mbappé said after, "and I am delighted to be here."

Two days before, the team had released a photograph that was striking for multiple reasons. In it, the players were wearing their first jerseys — the kits of the first teams they played for when they were kids.

It was a lovely idea. More than that, the players in that photograph looked genuinely pleased to be in each other's company. Les Bleus are also Les Joyeux, a true team, men in love with life and each other, in the middle of a time they know they will remember forever. 

Playing in a World Cup is an incredible gift. The kids who put on those jerseys however many years ago could hardly imagine days as sunny as these. They would have looked at the posters on their walls, watched their heroes on their TVs, and prayed to join them.

Now, they have. They are here. And the players who remain the most mindful of their good fortune are turning celebration into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lionel Messi is having an unbelievable run at what might be his last World Cup, and he has looked so happy during it. He is exuding and spreading bliss. The Brazilians, too, and their tens of thousands of dancing supporters appear as though they're enjoying every minute of their tournament. 

England players defend against a free kick from Senegal's Bamba Dieng. (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

In contrast, teams that have played with freight, with a grimmer determination, haven't fared as well.

Serbia went at Switzerland with straight venom and lost. The Ghanaians, usually so ecstatic in their approach, weren't themselves in their game against Uruguay, and their grudge match turned into a death spiral for both. Belgium followed a pressure-foiled Canada out of Group F and looked miserable every step of the way.

The obvious question, of course, is whether joy is an antecedent to success or a consequence of it. Do teams win because they're happy, or are they happy because they're winning?

We might yet find out. England and France will now meet each other in a sensational matchup. The winner will be one game away from the World Cup final. The loser will go home.

"It's a fantastic challenge," England coach Gareth Southgate said. "A brilliant game for us to be involved with and test ourselves against the very best."

Huge games often become tight, stuttering, nervy affairs, because the World Cup matters, and it matters to billions of people. But soccer isn't supposed to be dentistry. It's supposed to be fun. Kids know that. Adults forget.

Maybe this time, the winner will be the team that remembers.

Look for new episodes of Soccer North each Friday during the World Cup on CBC and the CBC Sports YouTube channel


Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

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