It wasn’t meant to be.
After one-hundred and twenty minutes in Moscow on Wednesday night, England’s 2018 World Cup dreams were dashed, as they lost to Croatia in extra-time.
Kieran Trippier’s perfect free-kick in the fifth minute of the game set England’s tone in the first half, where they looked as assured and as in control as they had been throughout the competition. England fans know full well that things are never easy, so at half time, they must have known deep down that the confidence they felt, may not last.
As we now know, it was too good to be true and in one way or another, England allowed their opponents back into the game, but it wasn’t without an immensely determined effort from the likes of Kyle Walker and John Stones, to name just two of the country’s new National Treasures, who gave it their all; they may be out, but for once it can be said they did themselves and their country proud.
For much of the tournament, it felt like the red sea had parted in front of Gareth Southgate, England’s new Prodigal Son. Everything – from Kane’s last-minute Tunisia winner, to being on the right side of a penalty shootout for the first time in twenty-two years – just seemed to click perfectly.
If this didn’t send alarm bells around the country that something magical could happen in Russia, then the scarily straightforward route to the final certainly meant that a World Cup win was genuinely realistic, rather than optimistic pub talk.
England’s success in Russia may be seen by sceptics as slightly superficial. Wednesday’s semi-final is a fixture which would more typically be seen in the last sixteen of the tournament and losing against this Croatia side illustrates just how hard it is to win the whole competition, bearing in mind the quality of other sides involved. Deep down, the Nation knew it was riding it’s luck.
It may have been the best chance England had to win the World Cup for some time and although they’ll never have an ‘easier’ route to the final, in four years’ time (give or take a couple of changes) the same squad will head to Qatar more hungry, determined and ambitious than you can imagine.
2018 was very much an opportunity for Gareth Southgate to put his watermark on this young side, instilling a footballing ethos in their minds which will be exhibited on the international stage for the foreseeable future.
The first edition of The England Rant emphasised the need to focus on ‘the now’ and not use Russia as a dress rehearsal for tournaments in the future, because history tells us that chances to succeed or even feature at a World Cup are hard to come by, for teams and players alike.
Fortunately, we saw both: a young side with the ambition to win and the hunger to make the most of a priceless opportunity, while at the same time, enriching themselves with invaluable experiences that will stay with them forever. They leave Russia wanting more and desperate to prove they can achieve greatness.
One thing they had on their side this time around was the absence of expectation which – as a result of their success – they won’t get again. They may not be expected to win every tournament they compete in, but they’ll certainly be expected to show the same desire, attitude, commitment and affection towards the fans, which in turn will generate an intoxicating sense of unity for the country to enjoy.
During a time when friends, families and colleagues are divided on cultural, political and ethical issues both at home and abroad, Gareth Southgate and his England players let the country forget their differences and remember their similarities.
For the first time in many years, people were channelling their emotions towards the same cause and although this won’t last forever, England’s World Cup campaign was a refreshing respite and a wonderful form of escapism, from an uncomfortable social climate.
England players treated fans to three and a half weeks of joy and instilled national pride back in a country with it’s back against the wall.
Before they left for Russia, a quarter final cameo would have been regarded as a success by most. We went on to hope for much more and although England didn’t win the World Cup, celebrating a goal of that quality in the semi-finals is something many have never experienced and will remember forever.
That feeling of pure ecstasy alone, made the fans’ journey more than worthwhile.
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