It was in those dying moments, as the tears trickled down Kieran Trippier’s face to a backdrop of Croatian glee, that reality finally arrived. England had ambled around Russia without a care for the past month, but here, deep in Moscow and extra time, they awoke from the dream state that had enveloped them over the course of this World Cup.
Gareth Southgate’s men will head home after Saturday’s largely meaningless third-place play-off. Football, alas, will remain on an extended vacation. Mario Mandzukic’s thumping strike, 109 minutes into a gruelling, exhausting game, put the Three Lions behind for the first time in Russia. It was a question they had not previously been asked and one for which they could find no answer.
That goal ensured the extension of 52 years of hurt and, more presently, brought to an end four weeks of unexpected enjoyment. Few predicted Southgate’s side would get this far; fewer still envisaged the scale of goodwill and togetherness that they have engendered in the process.
It seems silly, really, to offer feelings of sorrow to professional footballers. Sport is by no means the most important thing in this world and if we have finite tears to be shed, they should surely be offered elsewhere.
But we don’t so they aren’t and, as Trippier wept and his teammates sank to the turf, it was all we could do not to join them. This was a tournament England were never meant to win and yet the fact that they’ve gotten so close somehow makes it that bit harder to take.
Much has been made of how likeable this squad is and, from the outside looking in, that judgement appears to be well-founded. The feelings of community are enhanced by the familiarity factor that has grown around a team which, in truth, was only formed in March of this year.
That is shown in how this is a side for whom forenames are now acceptable reference points among observers. Dele. Jesse. Raheem. Harry. Jordan. Harry. Jordan.
Likeability should not be allowed to skew perceptions and, despite the lamentations of the naysayers, for the most part it hasn’t. England, it is true, did not come up against top calibre opposition until Wednesday’s semi-final (and some even debate that point). But is the strength of a side to be determined by past glories or present travails?
Certainly, tussles with a wilting Germany or a calamitous Argentina would not have troubled England as much this summer as they have in the past, but in some eyes only tests against historic heavyweights would have allowed for a true measurement of this side’s quality.
That is as senseless as it is cynical, not least because England, bemusing battles with Belgium aside, do not get to choose whom they face. Against Tunisia, they dug deep into their reserves and snatched a deserved victory before Panama were bullied in a manner that England sides should long have been capable of but have never quite managed.
Colombia, James-less, granted, came to fight and found in their way a team unwilling to roll over. Sweden, who topped both the Netherlands and Italy in qualifying, looked solid for 30 minutes before being swatted away with the ease of a doorman refusing entry to a toddler.
And yes, had Mateus Uribe’s penalty during that epochal shootout been hit two inches lower, things might well have been very different. But so might they if Jordan Henderson had gone the other way with his own spot kick, or if Raheem Sterling had put his legs on the right way round in front of goal. If ''whataboutery is the main refuge of the dim-witted, then surely 'whatiffery' can’t be too far behind.
Croatia may not boast decades of footballing glory and did not even exist as a nation the last time England reached the final four of World Cup. Yet former successes mean nothing in the cold light of day and what Zlatko Dalic does have at his disposal is a coterie of genuine top-end stars.
Slowly but surely both Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic squeezed the life out of England’s midfield, two genuinely world-class players who have shown as much this summer. And if Ivan Perisic and Mandzukic, the goalscorers, do not quite inhabit the same abode as the former pairing they must, at least, be in the same postcode.
After a start in which they fizzed and bubbled and, by way of Trippier’s sumptuous fifth-minute free-kick, actually took the lead, England found themselves slowly overcome by a side that was, quite simply, just that little bit better than them and that little bit more experienced.
Modric was moved post-game to complain of the “arrogance” of the English media in “underestimating” a side which has now bettered the ‘Golden Generation’ of 1998. But quite what the Real Madrid man was referring to is difficult to determine; for the most part, the attitude of the Three Lions’ press pack at these finals has been of surprised optimism, rather than the haughty entitlement of tournaments past.
Croatia’s captain was perhaps irritated by the sight and sound of a whole country chorusing ‘It’s Coming Home’ for the better part of a month. Yet that, the riff that bore a thousand memes, was more a nationwide in-joke than it was an unwavering belief.
Yes, as England grew in stature this tournament, so too did the hopes of those watching on from Blighty. But hope is not akin to expectation and, really, what is the point of following this ridiculous sport if no hope is present?
At the front of it all is the man who has allowed such hope to prosper. Gareth Southgate was never meant to be here, and, were it not for Sam Allardyce’s penchant for pints of wine, it is unlikely he ever would have been.
Southgate arrived on the scene much like the man whose car has broken down and needs a friend’s settee for the night. Really sorry to bother you. Won’t be here long. Yes, I’ll leave everything as it was when I found it.
Yet as time went on something stirred within Southgate and, far from keeping things the same, he has torn up the England manager’s rule book. An adventurous formation, a youthful squad and a genuinely refreshing approach to media responsibilities have all melded together to generate not just an upswell of positivity but a veritable tsunami.
Wednesday’s loss might part the tide momentarily but those feelings of sadness should not be allowed to fester for too long. Southgate, it is true, has much to do if his side are to go where only the men of ’66 have dared trespass.
For all this tournament represented a seminal moment for England it is impossible to escape the fact that a draw will never again open up for them quite like it did here. Moreover, despite the likelihood of Harry Kane capturing the Golden Boot as a consolation, the fact remains that Southgate’s side struggled to create from open play and relied considerably on set-pieces.
That is not surprising given the speed with which his team came together: it is much easier to rehearse set-piece routines in a short space of time than it is to perfect the combinations that the likes of Kane and Dele Alli showcase on a weekly basis for Spurs.
It is impossible not to detect a hint of snobbery from those who suggest England were only capable of winning by way of set plays. They are, after all, an important part of any game and if England have an advantage in that department then there is no reason why they shouldn’t seek to utilise it.
Attempts to use both Southgate and this England side as a vision for a post-Brexit Britain are as laboured as they are trite, yet what the current manager and his players have done is at least give people something to be proud of.
In a nation that has been riven by division in recent years and looks increasingly desperate to tear itself apart further still, rallying causes like this should be welcomed rather than shunned. It may only be football but, ultimately, if it helps people to realise they have more in common than they previously thought, that can only be a good thing.
Above all else, even after falling just short of the final hurdle, England have reminded their fans what it is to enjoy watching their national side play football again. This is a squad chock-full of players that are genuinely proud to represent their country, ones who, you sense, will feel the pain of Wednesday far more keenly than the sides of the last two decades or so.
The upside is that throughout this tournament the squad has shown little regard for the pains of the past, and, in time, they should apply that logic to the Croatian loss too. Should they do so, they can steel themselves for another go of things in two years’ time at the European Championships. This is a squad which has youth on its side and, for the first time in a long time, a whole nation behind it.
Well played Gareth. Well played Jordan and Harry and Jordan and Harry and Raheem and Jesse and Dele and all the rest. Well played England.
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