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-Marseille 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/BlocBoy JB 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.
His first act was to find himself chopped to the floor in the Panama area by an expert short-arm elbow from Gabriel Gómez. Lingard felt his cheek and got on with it. Moments later Armando Cooper dragged him down with the kind of no-you-don’t-son hack familiar to desperate Sunday league players everywhere.
England had just taken the lead, John Stones heading in powerfully after a ludicrous triple-tag wrestling bout at a corner had made the space. By which point Gómez had taken it upon himself to follow Lingard everywhere, but he was notably absent as his man sprinted on to Jordan Henderson’s pass and was bundled down by Román Torres and Fidel Escobar in the area. Kane buried the kick.
Peak Lingard arrived after 36 minutes, revenge for that throbbing cheek fully realised with a lovely goal to make it 3-0. It was a familiar Lingard move too, a turn and spring, taking the ball in his stride in space and producing a sublime curling shot on the run into the far corner of the net.
Stones and Kane scored again. Panama pulled themselves together and were gracious in defeat, Hernán Darío Gómez coming across after half-time to offer warm congratulations to Southgate.
For now Kane, Lingard and the travelling support will always have Nizhny Novgorod and a gloriously fun shellacking of a third-tier minnow that still felt significant. Yes, England have yet to play a half-decent opponent here, and could yet bomb out horribly when they do.
But who cares, really? Compare this with the paralysing horror, the fear, the constipated style of the last five tournaments. England did not expect. They came to Russia with no real sense of hope, but with a gathering affection for this team and the admirable Southgate. They are already in credit. This was free. This was fun. This was a day that felt like a quiet kind of redemption whatever happens next.