Let’s get the obvious facts out of the way, before we begin. When Russia 2018 started, no right-minded England fan would have expected the team to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup – a feat that had been achieved only twice before in their history. To finish in the top four is an achievement for a team which, when they took to the pitch in their opening game Tunisia, were playing together for the first time. Their run to the semi-finals has made an entire nation root for them in unison again. In terms of football being a tool in nation-building, at a time when they are in desperate need of it, Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane and the rest of the English squad have done phenomenally well.
But, for a neutral, it is hard not to look back at the game against Croatia and wonder: did these players blow the biggest opportunity of their life away?
A missed opportunity
When the round of 16 lineups were confirmed after the madness of the group stages, England found themselves in a half where they were the only other winner of the World Cup in the past, apart from Spain. When La Roja were knocked out in the last 16, England and Sweden were the only teams in that half of the draw to have played in a World Cup final previously – both happening more than five decades back. They had to stay in the moment and take it game by game, of course. But having gotten past Colombia, by showing great character to win a shootout for the first time in the tournament, having eased past Sweden and having taken a 1-0 lead into the half-time of their semi-final against Croatia, England reverted to type.
Let’s be honest, for the first 45 minutes, the semi-final had the makings of a no contest. Kieran Trippier, arguably the player of the tournament for England, bent it like Beckham to put England ahead in the first 10 minutes and from there, they controlled the game. Croatia didn’t quite have an answer to the questions posed to them by the pace and high-pressing of Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli. Even Kane, who looked static and leggy for much of the Sweden game, was involved early on. But, instead of making their dominance count, England kept spurning opportunities to increase the lead and put the game to bed.
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Lack of composure
Consider this stat: after Trippier’s goal, England’s next shot on target came in the 99th minute, when John Stones’ header was cleared of the line. And that was it, for the entire game. Danijel Subasic, literally, didn’t have a save to make.
That’s, of course, not including Kane’s golden chance to put England 2-0 ahead in the first half, when a late offside flag propped up. But if he had, in fact, scored the VAR would have ruled him onside – a glaring miss that is sure to bug him for a while.
In the second half however, the game turned on its head, the moment Croatia scored their opener.
Croatia, having realised they had an advantage in midfield, started dominating possession and territory and pegged England back. The English defence then turned shaky, and where they were playing passes out from the back and building attacks in the rest of the tournament, they were now playing under-hit back-passes, before inevitably hoofing it forward towards Kane.
Young energy, which had been England’s ally, made way for inexperience, showing up England’s weaknesses.
And for all the talk of this being a new England side without the burden of history weighing them down, the Three Lions suffered their fourth consecutive loss at the semi-finals of a major tournament. For all the talk of coincidences with the 1966 World Cup run, the ‘it’s coming home’ chants ended up being a throwback to 1996 Euro, when the tongue-in-cheek song was originally made, talking about the hurt of seeing England throw away big opportunities.
No one hypes their teams up more than England supporters when the the going is good. No one team elicits as much derision from other fans when England, almost inevitably, falter. The truth, about how good this England team was at the World Cup, lies somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
Ultimately, they let go of opportunity to enter the World Cup final. It was there for the taking but in the end, just like that, it was gone.
And to answer the earlier question, it might not quite be once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. England are the current U-20 and U-17 World Champions, and to add World Cup semi-finalists to that list, means progress is definite.
But instead of using that to gloss over the problems and turning this into a PR exercise (that could have an political undercurrent to it), focus should be on building on the progress.
Luckily for England, they have a man in-charge who recognised that in the aftermath. Instead of sitting in the post-match conference, driving home the positives, Southgate made a concerted effort to point that out, when he was asked if the past few weeks have been the best time of his life in football.
“We have just lost a massive, massive game and I am conscious that we don’t move on from this quickly (looking for the positives). The opportunity we had shouldn’t be overlooked,” he said. “Of course, as a group, we all wanted to create good memories and we all have had an incredible experience. If we have brought joy back home, which I knew we have, we should be proud of that. Hugely disappointed that we didn’t go one step further and give them what they hoped for but in time we will focus on the progress that we have made.”
Progress was certainly made but when the euphoria settles down, that’s where England’s post-World Cup journey should begin: build ahead to avoid another heartbreak, work on not throwing away the next opportunity that presents itself and do not merely bask in the glory of Russia 2018.