It’s that hurt again.
The pangs we know too well.
That gut wrenching pull deep inside you. Sheer agony.
The World Cup was officially canceled on July 11, 2018 as the final whistle of the semifinal between England and Croatia sounded. There is no need for it to go on. The lads are out.
As I watched, in what seemed like slow motion, the much maligned Mario Mandžukić slip unnoticed past John Stones to blast the Croatia winner into the corner of the net, I didn’t feel. I couldn’t speak. The immediate world around me was numb. I have the brilliant skill of being able to describe and articulate it because I have been here before.
It’s been a life of pain. The inevitable downs of following England over the last three odd decades has been at times hopeful and bright, but mostly caked in disappointment. And yet you’re always there believing and screaming inwardly that maybe this time will be different.
And by god, this time it was. Maybe the trophy isn’t coming home to England, but football certainly has and is. The football we always knew England could play. The football that gets you into World Cup semifinals. The football that gets you dreaming all over again.
The boys will return as heroes. They shed the old aura of failure plaguing teams of the 90s and 2000s. They altered the conversation of what English football actually is. They fought for their manager and they fought for each other. Heroes. In the end, their inexperience and nerves and, well, the elite Croatian class of Man of the Match Ivan Perisić was their undoing. And this bombastically stunning run was suddenly over.
But the world now knows their names. Jordan Pickford in goal was immense. He showed he is confident on the ball and a terrific shot stopper. A legendary penalty shootout performance against Colombia will stay with him forever. Harry Maguire became a star. He is fearless in both boxes and can bruise strikers up as well. Kieran Trippier walked out of the shadows of his more high profile Tottenham Hotspur teammates and put his stamp on the right side. He has heart and an effective ability at set pieces the country hasn’t seen since the days of David Beckham. Jordan Henderson played the anchor so well. He grafted and remained reliable. A second captain in the midfield. Marcus Rashford made a noisy statement that he is next. A proper gem in the making, no defender could handle his pace and technique.
So there’s hope. Genuine hope for the future. A future of England which definitely entails its questions, too. Gareth Southgate needs a left back or a left sided wing back he can rely on (the impressive and resurrected Ashley Young at 33 likely not one for the next chapter). And he needs a play maker: a bona fide #10 who can change a game in a flash and on his own (Dele Alli had a tepid tournament at best). And the biggest question of all is how to fit the aforementioned Rashford into the starting lineup. He can play on the flank but needs to be on the ball more frequently pushing defenders off the shoulder, too. He is a constant, and currently under-utilized, threat. The budding Manchester United forward alongside Harry Kane in some sort of way is a legitimately salivating prospect.
So, the “hope” part we have locked down. But there’s also swathes of regret engulfing the mind space with such a torrential fervor. Regret that this could have been the year. The what ifs creep purposefully into the memories of these last few triumphant weeks. Regrets that England let their naïveté and nerves eventually show. Their inexperience in a match where the true embrace of glory awaits. Regrets that Kane did not quite deliver what he is capable of after such a radiant beginning to the tournament. And his miss. That one. The first was well saved but one of the best breathing should be putting that and the follow up chance away (the offside flag would have been rescinded). And regrets that England stopped playing their style. There was no possession in the midfield and balls were needlessly and frightfully being belted to no one in particular.
Croatia deserve their credit. Their dirtiness and cheap hard man tactics aside, the Croatians had the superior talent. Their talismen emerged after the slow start and took a vice grip to the game. The midfield was bossed and moments of sublime quality won the tie. Croatia had the stars and those stars shone. My hat is off to them but good luck with Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté in the final, chaps.
It was a whirlwind. And weeks worthy of the banter and joy and belief that arose within the country during it. The football took centre stage as a form of escapism from the disarray and division laying claim to reality. The English people allowed themselves to revel and it was inspiring and heartwarming to see the coming together in a time when the country (and much of the world) is in relative despair.
Now it’s time to kick on. This should be classified as a beginning. The team should hold this tournament closely to them and understand what they’ve actually achieved. There are promising youngsters in the youth team wings who have already conquered the world. The development of them needs to continue and the experience of Russia needs to be used as a springboard for an ultimate victory to come. What is in store certainly seems worth believing in, worth dreaming about that one day a trophy will duly come home. And I am proud we had a chance to do this all together.
Well done, England. I am devastated. But more importantly, beaming with glittering pride. You gave this young boy sat in front of the telly in 1990 watching as West Germany crushed the hopes of England in that semifinal shootout a renewed capacity to dream. We all started to believe that that possibly was the zenith for our lifetimes. But now we have 2018.
The anguish may be constant but now we move forward with a newly energized spirit. The next time England take the pitch on the grandest of stages, it won’t be as underdogs. The next time a tournament comes around, we will be contenders. And one day, one gorgeous day, football will come home and we will celebrate on a scale the rest of the world could not even fathom.
Go on, my son!