As England fell to a late defeat against Croatia on Wednesday night, the resounding consensus was that though England had gone further than expected, they did so with the large benefit of a kind draw and luck.
The fact is that England did overachieve at this World Cup, despite an easier draw, and a lack of creativity in open-play. But this does not mean they didn’t deserve their place in the last four, because a World Cup is not about how you play, it’s not about beautiful football and it’s not even necessarily about winning it – only one team can, and for that to happen stars must align in perfectly natural positions.
And this England side are a developing one, for which this World Cup will have been extremely useful. When Eric Dier said he had never before taken the final penalty in a shootout, Gary Neville in the ITV studio swiftly replied with “he has now.”
This sentiment is all the more pertinent given the youth of Southgate’s team, as only 1 of his starting XI against Croatia was older than 30; this tournament has provided an invaluable learning curve for his pride of young lions, and surely now they must kick on and provide their country with more to celebrate.
The success of England’s age-group teams remains unprecedented – the U20 team are World Champions, the U17 team are European Champions, and the U21s have won three consecutive Toulon Tournaments. And while a successful formula for these young talents getting game time is still yet to be found, it is nonetheless incredibly promising for any potential future success on the global stage.
Blind, jealous criticism of England has been widely received, especially across the UK, which once more raises the question of the purpose of sport. It seems to be a conclusive answer – to entertain, which means this criticism prompts the same response that we saw after Liverpool reached the Champions League final, only to be greeted with choruses of “You won the same amount of trophies as Man Utd/Arsenal/Tottenham”.
But it is a simple, axiomatic truth that what Liverpool and England have in common is that while they were ultimately unsuccessful in their quest for glory, the nights and memories created are so incredibly glorious for all involved with their teams. It can be guaranteed that any England fans in Russia would not rue the semi-final defeat too greatly, for the last-minute winners, penalty shootout victories and routine trouncings throughout the campaign will have brought wonderful moments amongst the travelling supporters.
And that is what sport was created to achieve. Though winning the tournament would of course have brought a new universe of delirium, the victories over the course of the month they were in Russia will have brought England, both as a team and as a country, incredible joy.
For a month, Brexit negotiations were no longer front page news, the dismantling of Theresa May’s cabinet was overshadowed by previews for England’s World Cup semi-final, and the country were able to forget about the political climate which has threatened any cause for happiness for the past two years. One only needs to watch the video of Hyde Park’s reaction to Keiran Trippier’s free-kick goal to see the ubiquitous happiness across the country.
Which means that when Croatia claim that the national media were wrong to use ‘It’s coming home’ as a catchphrase for England’s campaign, they themselves are incorrect. Because football did come home – not in the form we all hoped for, but in a form that is actually more positive for the coming months. England’s exploits caused a nation to fall back in love with football, and this support should act as the perfect platform for any future success. Southgate’s men now have the country behind them.
It may well be that Southgate’s men did get lucky with the draw, and they have not improved greatly since the horror display against Iceland two years ago, but it’s impossible to not be enthused by the palpable air of positivity and youth that now surrounds the England camp. This sense of alacrity must fill any supporter with a great sense of optimism towards future tournaments.