It was like watching a beautiful painting being ripped up in front of your eyes. England’s dream of making it to their first World Cup final for more than half a century was over and in the desperate moments after the final whistle, as the losing players wandered aimlessly around the pitch, almost zombie-like in their desolation, it was impossible not to wonder whether that will be a lifetime regret.
Those players will look back eventually on a tournament that has shifted England’s reputation for leaden football and tournament neuroticism. All the same, it may take some time to shake off the ordeal of losing this semifinal, the knowledge that the World Cup may never open up so obligingly again and the additional trauma from the fact that, for a long while, Gareth Southgate’s team had led us to believe they could do it. They really did.
Instead, it will be Croatia who return to the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday to face France and, in the midst of the England inquest, it would be hugely unfair on Zlatko Dalic’s team not to recognise the competitive courage that helped them recover from a goal down. The decisive moment came in the 109th minute from a striker, Mario Mandzukic, with a badly damaged knee and that itself summed up Croatia. They have won all three of their knockout games in extra time and, providing they are not on the point of exhaustion, it is still plausible the World Cup will go to a country with a population of only four million.
For England, it is the third v fourth sideshow against Belgium on Saturday and, much like Bobby Robson’s beaten semi-finalists of 1990, they will desperately wish they were not there. The honour of football immortality will go to another team. Moscow 2018 can be filed with Turin 1990, and their grief was epitomised by Kieran Trippier’s tears as he was helped off in the final exchanges. Trippier had opened the scoring for England with a peach of a free-kick but his injury came after Mandzukic’s winner and the emotion poured out of him. He knew it was over.
At the very least, Southgate and his players have helped redefine the way the England team are perceived around the world. New heroes have emerged, with a new respect and a new outlook. To see the England fans serenading the team, decorating this vast stadium with their flags and holding the players in such esteem, made it feel a trick of the imagination that the mood was close to mutiny not even a year ago.
SOURCE: Daniel Taylor