And so, like a gap-year British student buying a winning scratchcard from a Majorcan newsagent, football won’t be coming home this week after all.
Having scored first, controlled the opening hour of the match, and taking things to extra time, Gareth Southgate’s band of bright-faced national herolets, slipped, ooer’d, and lost their grip on the 2018 World Cup final.
Thoughts of a delicious trans-channel match-up in the ultimate game were dashed, as Mario Mandžukić punished a fleeting moment of defensive carelessness, heaving a half-keeled – the pneumatic Ivan Perišić excepted – Croatian team over the line.
Croatia were the better team, and finished the game with – amazingly, considering the amount of minutes they’ve logged in the knockout stages so far – more vigour, and with markedly more composure and poise. As England resorted back to old long-punt habits, and Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić kept shifting the ball calmly from side to side, the outcome was all but assured even before they’d scored the winner.
One would think, having not made the World Cup semi-final stage for 28 years, that the English disappointment would be even more severe than usual; the numb dread of a Round of 16 exit, so often at the hands of lesser team, has been such a habitually suffered trauma that it barely registers on the scales of a people who, at times, seem to welcome the cathartic blood-letting of footballing failure.
But it doesn’t feel worse, and it’s because – despite the initial arrogant, entitled impression the whole Football’s Coming Home meme gives – the English weren’t actually casting out and reeling in, dad-on-the-dancefloor-style, football’s biggest honour as if they’d already landed the whopper.
There are levels of irony to all that the singing and affected confidence that only the English can detect and appreciate. In fact, they were grateful and happy to have made the semi-final, seem to have a genuine affection for their young team, and are totally aware of their fortunate path through the group and knockout stages.
They didn’t think they had the final in hand, and so don’t mourn the loss of it. They can see the positives in a campaign that ultimately ended up falling short of the prize.
Almost every English team since Italia ’90 has under-performed at the big tourney, burping up a slightly sickening product that’s hit a mark some distance below the level they might have reached. From the Iceland debacle of the last Euros to the varied penalty shoot-out implosions of the last 20 years, it’s been the the the extrinsic narratives that have left the sourest taste and caused the sourest face, not the result itself.
Not least, to name one wrinkle conspicuously absent from England’s Russia campaign, the issue of team dysfunction; Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard or Paul Scholes? Where – or if – to play Wayne Rooney? Will the manager play that one rather un-English English midfielder, whose absence we can surely blame the fact we can’t keep the ball on?
Who’ll be captain, that leadership position that few other countries seem to focus on as intently and ascribe as much intolerable importance as England do? They just weren’t here this tournament, for some reason.
And it’s not as though there weren’t things to gripe about. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, a less established but more talented two-way midfielder than Jordan Henderson, should have got more knock-out round minutes. The three-at-the-back system, with a converted Kyle Walker, could easily have been a point of poisonous tactical argument – of course, the fact it was largely successful helped quell that.
English people can always find something to moan about if they feel like a moan.
The fact this team is so young has also provided a hopeful aftertaste; England have the equal-second-youngest squad (26 years old) in the tournament, tied with France and behind Nigeria. They only have three players over 30 in the squad, and only one of those, Ashley Young, is a starter.
Who were England’s best performers this tournament? Well, Jordan Pickford is 24, Raheem Sterling is 23, and John Stones is 24 – Kieran Trippier is a relative veteran at 27. Many of the current crop will, in theory, be better, more rounded players for the next Euros, and the World Cup in Qatar.
They weren’t supposed to do anything other than try hard, develop a little, and not embarrass themselves in Russia. That they won a penalty shoot-out and made the final four isn’t just encouraging, it has sent a warm anaesthetic comfort across the country and helped stitch together a nation doing everything it can to tear itself limb from limb.
Southgate is the other factor. He has stewarded, with dignity and composure, this diverse, likeable team, has made some bold tactical gestures, and has gone some way to bringing back the Marks and Spencer waistcoat. He’s English too, a beaky, pale, slight and slightly princely Englishman – the last three English England managers have been, to violently varying degrees of permanence, Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson and Steve McClaren.
McClaren failed to qualify for Euro 2008, Hodgson was out-tactic’d by a part-time dentist in Euro 2016, and Sam Allardyce’s most memorable act as England manager was to be filmed ordering a pint of wine. English people like Southgate, and he’s done a great job at the World Cup.
That’s more than you can probably say about the last 20 years of national team gaffers.
It would be needless giddy positivity not to mention how fortunate England’s run to the semis was. One could also point out that it’s not exactly great that they scored a third of their goals from set pieces or penalties – hang your hat on being able to execute a nice set piece routine, sure, but emphasising deep free kicks or corners as the main source of offensive potency and celebrating accordingly when you win them – isn’t really the sign of a team with a enviable attacking scheme.
Southgate has more to do, more to tweak, and more to improve, but he seems well-equipped and – crucially – well-supported enough to do it.
A third-place finish would be England’s best result in a major tournament since the 1968 Euros and would add an extra sweetener to all of this. Plenty of England fans will now embrace their inner Croatian, as opposed to donning the dreaded beret.
There will be a tinge of regret about that extra time period against Croatia, to be sure, and if the national team slip back into wallowing catastrophe in time for the next major tourney, it will throb painfully in history as a badly missed opportunity.
So, yes, England are out, as we expected them to be at this stage, but, no, they aren’t down.