THE GUARDIAN-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.
This England feels different: a band of brothers, comfortable in their own skin with a new spirit of togetherness.
This England bend it like Trippier. This England have a guy at the back who makes it his business, in Southgate’s words, to “get his bonce on everything” in either penalty area. This England can make their supporters proud again, for the first time in a long time.
Ultimately, though, we were reminded that Southgate was being deadly serious when he warned us his team were far from perfect and it must have been startling for their manager to see the way his players relinquished their control from the midway stage of the second half.
Until that point, they had played with a conviction that made this feel like it could be the greatest achievement yet for a post-1966 team. Again, it felt like we were watching the compelling evidence that John Stones had become the central defender English football always wanted him to be. Dele Alli kept to his promise of playing better than he had against Sweden.
Harry Maguire had been outstanding. Jordan Henderson was keeping midfield safe. England looked firmly in control.
Yet they could not add a second goal when they were on top and the game swung in Croatia’s favour once Ivan Perisic had scored an improvisational equaliser in the 68th minute, showing great determination to beat Trippier and Kyle Walker to a cross from the right and twisting mid-air to turn an awkward volley, almost head-height, past Jordan Pickford.
England still managed to toy with our emotions, as they often do, and it needed a goal-line clearance to prevent Stones heading in a corner in the first period of extra time. By that point, however, it was the first time in the entire tournament when England have repeatedly looked vulnerable at the back. Even before the additional 30 minutes, Perisic struck the post with a low, diagonal shot and Ante Rebic should have done better with the rebound. It was not an onslaught, but it was not far off. Croatia had enough of the ball in dangerous areas to think they might have completed the recovery before the end of normal time.
All of which was tremendously disappointing from an English perspective bearing in mind the story of the first half, the energy they put into quelling the influence of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic and the euphoria, only five minutes in, when Trippier directed a free-kick over a six-man defensive wall, applying just the right blend of curl and dip for the ball to beat Danijel Subasic and arc beneath the crossbar. As devastated as Trippier was, he will return to England as one of the authentic stars of this tournament.
Unfortunately for England, Southgate acknowledged their inexperience might have counted against them during that inevitable period in the second half when Croatia committed more men forward in their search for an equaliser.
Too often, an England player would rush or miscue a clearance. “Game management,” the coaches call it – and England lacked it. The shape of the team started to unravel and, though Harry Kane will almost certainly win the Golden Boot, the paradox is that he has found it difficult to get behind opposition defences.
Raheem Sterling was substituted after a so-so performance and Jesse Lingard will not easily forget the first‑half chance he put wide. Kane’s best chance was given incorrectly as offside and, though it is difficult sometimes to second-guess VAR, maybe it would have stood if he could have put the ball in from close range rather than hitting the post. Hypothetical now: England will never know.
Instead it was Mandzukic with the killer moment, leaving Southgate to talk about the “hardened warriors” in the Croatia team. Stones lost concentration for a split-second and the striker rifled in a left-foot shot.
Was there still time for England to save themselves? Could they rouse themselves one last time? Yes and no. The momentum had swung and England’s players will never forget the night they had the lead in a World Cup semi-final and blew it.
“We all feel the pain,” Southgate said. Football’s not coming home, after all.