Did England really lose to Italy in Manaus last night? Because it certainly didn’t feel like it.
England defeats at major tournaments are normally accompanied by such emotions as embarrassment and hopelessness.
But something strange happened Saturday night.
England lost and instead left their fans feeling proud, enthused and actually optimistic about the rest of the World Cup.
This is a new England capable of inspiring new feelings.
Roy Hodgson’s side’s invention, daringness and fluidity certainly deserved to be rewarded with at least a point, possibly all three.
The first flurry of excitement came before the game had even started, when the team sheets were handed out.
Raheem Sterling was in.
Despite playing just 209 minutes of international football before the World Cup, England put their trust in the rookie.
It was a bold decision by Hodgson that would be rewarded within the first five minutes, when Sterling dropped a shoulder, beat a man and so very nearly scored from 25 yards.
This was an England that wouldn’t be cowed and allow the Italians to dictate the game, but rather one who played with a sense of adventure and a youthful bravado.
Along with Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck performed with pace, intelligence and an uplifting directness.
England were exhilarating—a genuine joy to watch.
When this trio received the ball, they would turn and run at the Italians, invariably causing panic amongst their back line.
Italy taking the lead in the first half felt unjust, but within two minutes, a wonderful pass from Sterling set Wayne Rooney through on the left, and his cross was converted by Sturridge.
Here was a team utterly unrecognisable from the rabble of the last World Cup in South Africa four years ago or the European Championship only two years ago.
Hodgson’s whole managerial career has been guided by an overriding caution, but in the second half, after Italy had regained their lead, he made a series of bold and attacking substitutions by bringing on Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere and Adam Lallana.
Though they came close on several occasions, England could not muster an equaliser, and when the final whistle blew, they were left with a disconcerting sense of both pride and regret.
Overall, England have probably never felt so optimistic in defeat.
They might have lost the game, but they gained something more valuable: a sense of belief and a new direction.
There should be no extended postmortems, no wallowing in disappointment; Hodgson should simply tell his players to go again.
If they can repeat this performance against Uruguay and Costa Rica, they will eventually emerge with distinction from Group D.