For a moment we dared to dream. It seemed as though the unthinkable was unfolding right before our eyes. Everyone couldn’t help but feel it, believe it and become embroiled in it. Millions of people stretched across the country didn’t dare let their attention slip even for a brief second, in fear of missing a moment to remember for a lifetime. The rawness of football is painful and the emotions that blasted us like a gush of hot air will now feel like a blur. Ecstasy, anger and sorrow all flashed into one.
But the inescapable fact is that England have been knocked out the World Cup. The journey is over and it’s time to return to normality, perhaps with a slightly wearier, heavier head than usual.
This summer threatened to be mundane and toxic, with the nation teetering on the brink of unavoidable disaster. England national sides hold a tendency to complicate matters. South Africa, Brazil, France. Wayne Rooney barking into a television camera as he trudged off the field following a drab goalless draw. Frank Lampard’s strike against Germany clearly bouncing over the line but not being given. The sheer dullness and acceptance of defeat against Iceland. We have become accustomed to these moments, they are regular occurrences during tournaments. We wait for the countless years of hurt to finally stop but they never do. They pull at us, and we warn ourselves not to get dragged in, not to believe.
It is part of the parcel of being an England fan, hanging on to the hope that the impossible could happen. This summer, even though it has once again come painfully crashing down, felt like a new beginning. It provides hope for the future, and we are clinging onto it with all we have.
The build-up before the game stirred feelings we haven’t felt before, perhaps in our lifetimes. But with a delicate swing of the boot and an unerring finish under pressure, everything was over.
Gareth Southgate and his squad of fresh-faced pioneers had plotted a course into uncharted territory, a place the nation hasn’t set foot in since 1990. For a little while they took to their challenge magnificently. They circulated possession intelligently, never afraid to roll the ball back to Jordan Pickford and start anew. And when Kieran Tripper curled a wonderful free-kick beyond Danijel Subasic, England suddenly had one foot in the World Cup final after just five minutes.
But as the clock menacingly continued to drive forward, and the Russian sunset slowly sunk beneath the rim of the Luzhniki Stadium, Croatia took control. The tables had turned, and they were ruthless in their finishing. Six key chances: a strike off the post and the rebound into the grateful arms of Pickford. A couple more fired straight at the England stopper. The other two, however, flashed into the back of the Three Lions’ net. Cue the chants of ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, as the travelling faithful attempted to understand what had just happened. They had, after all, held the dream that 28 other nations had yearned for in the palm of their hands, only to have it ripped away from them deep into extra time.
There was a ghostly silence from the pocket of England fans that greeted the full-time whistle, before the usual chants coughed themselves back into life. They were forced to watch on, like a horror film you can’t avert your eyes from, as the Croatians in the stadium rightly erupted in celebration.
It all could have been so different though. From the first moments England emerged from the tunnel and lined up for the national anthems they were the definition of composure. In the opening stages they were in complete control, spurred on by a foul on Dele Alli on the outskirts of the penalty area. Trippier and Ashley Young stood poised over the free-kick, and the former stepped up to curl a wonderful effort over the Croatian wall and into the far corner. England had taken the lead, and the resultant celebrations in Russia and back home will surely be remembered for many years to come.
There were even chances to double their lead. Harry Maguire twice came close with headers as England continued to threaten from set pieces. Jesse Lingard was teed up 25 yards out, but narrowly curled wide of Subasic’s far post. The clearest opening fell to the usually-reliable Harry Kane.
The Tottenham talisman has been a picture of composure at this tournament, boasting a formidable scoring record and a sure-fire bid to win the Golden Boot. But for a while he cut an isolated figure, waiting for a chance to unleash a strike at goal. It came after Lingard deftly weighted a ball through the Croatian defence, but Kane could only fire a tame effort into the body of Subasic. As the rebound pinged towards the skipper he couldn’t sort his footing out, temporarily resembling an off-balance animal in its early stages of learning how to walk. The follow-up attempt struck the base of the post, and somehow conspired to not nestle inside the net for two-nil.
The miss seemed to shake the Croatians into awareness. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, both passing masters in their own right, seized control of the game. In a sea of uncertainty they stood tall as beacons of calm and serenity, and began to pick apart the beleaguered England ranks at will.
Croatia emerged from the half-time interval a changed team. They had refocused and began an excruciating period for England supporters, raining crosses into the box and always managing to feed Modric, even with the Real Madrid metronome operating in the tightest of pockets.
They finally got their reward, sound in the knowledge that constant pressure at international level often will pay off. Sime Vrsaljko found space on the flank and arched a ball into the Three Lions’ penalty area. Ivan Perisic ghosted away from Kyle Walker and Trippier before flicking cleverly beyond Pickford. Suddenly the complexion of the tie had switched in that fateful second and the Croatians sensed their opponents’ fatigue, many of them clearly already running off fumes. England clung on until extra-time.
As the referee restarted the game, England projected that all-too familiar sense of false hope. They lulled Croatia into dropping the ramparts at points – John Stones’ goal bound header was cleared off the line by pantomime villain Vrsaljko and Lingard, the much-maligned Raheem Sterling and Alli began to link up together again. But with England there is always heartbreak lurking right around the corner.
The hulking presence of Mario Mandzukic began to cause problems, and eventually eliminated England from the competition. He fired a warning shot across the Three Lions’ bows, a close-range toe poke that was smothered spectacularly by Pickford. But his second effort would painfully sneak beyond the shot stopper minutes later.
He was alert to the danger inside a congested penalty area when Trippier and Perisic challenged for a header. As the ball dropped inside the box, Maguire and Stones were caught sleeping and Mandzukic tucked beyond Pickford and darted away towards the touchline. He wiped out a photographer in a bizarre display of footballing collateral damage, which distracted from the fact that England had tried to resume play despite the Croatian starting players, substitutes and coaching staff all being tangled in a bundle near the corner flag. It was a feeble but respectable last push.
There would be no way back for England, who had tried so hard from the first minute to the last. They now play Belgium on Saturday to decide who will finish in third place, still an incredibly admirable achievement. Perhaps that will be one final chance to make new memories in Russia, to be proudly placed alongside the others that have thrilled and captivated a nation.
Kane’s last minute winner against Tunisia, the rout against Panama, the first ever penalty shootout victory, Maguire’s opener in the quarter final – these are all moments that will forever be cherished because of the extreme emotions they stirred. For a month we were able to forget about all the nonsense and rediscover our love for the beautiful game. For that, we can only thank Southgate and his brave squad of Lions.