Heartache and frustration was intertwined with pride after Wednesday’s galling 2-1 extra-time loss to Croatia denied them a place in the Luzhniki Stadium showpiece finale.
“Football will not be coming home” but England will return as heroes, having restored pride, reconnected with fans and pointed towards a brighter future during a summer that will live long in the memory.
Southgate’s disappointment at missing the final is clear but there is understandable confidence about the future given the improving health of the national game and inspiration this run provide.
“We felt it was the chance to showcase what young English players can do,” the England manager said.
As a former @England player, I wanted to say how proud I am of what @GarethSouthgate and his team accomplished this @FIFAWorldCup. I'm sure the players will be disappointed not to have reached the final, but there is so much to be hopeful about for the future.— Sir Bobby Charlton (@SirBobby) July 12, 2018
“And, also, we hoped that we could strike a blow for English coaches as well because it’s not always been possible for English coaches to have this job.
“That’s why it is an honour to do it and to play in a way and get to a stage of a tournament that will hopefully inspire young coaches as well.
“I know the messages I have had from back home has helped them see what’s possible.”
It will take time to accurately reflect on England’s “incredible experience” in terms of progress, individual performances and collective success, but their style as much as substance brings hope.
Southgate certainly has the nation’s backing and provides a firm platform on which to build, unlike the teams of World Cup 1990 and Euro 96 when semi-final runs were followed by the exits of popular managers Sir Bobby Robson and Terry Venables.
“Of course, we have one of two paths to go,” Southgate said.
“This is either a moment of rare hope and we sink back or we build in the way that Germany did in 2010.
“We want to be in semi-finals, finals and we’ve shown to ourselves that can happen.
“The team and the individuals will be better in a couple of years’ time.
Full video of @GarethSouthgate’s long-awaited emergence from the tunnel - precisely 70 minutes after the final whistle. The @England fans had been chanting for him non-stop while he was inside conducting all his media duties. #mixedemotions #Eng pic.twitter.com/u1BO08uJAe— Jacqui Oatley (@JacquiOatley) July 12, 2018
“Some of these big matches, you just have to go through them and live them to know how to react in the right moments in the right way.
“There was just a period in the second half and it looked like we had the lead and don’t want to give it away rather than we keep playing and we just lost a bit of composure in that period and Croatia’s experience really told.
“But we’ve learned from all of the things over the last couple of years and that’s a cruel lesson, but, blimey, we’ve come through so many important ones and I’m really, really very proud of what they’ve done.”
Southgate now faces the challenge of getting his devastated players refocused and recovered in time for Saturday’s third-place play-off against Belgium.
The England manager admits it is not a game that any team wants to play in, but changes will be as much down to the short turnaround and tournament exertions than anything else.
“I think a physical part of that is going to have a huge bearing,” Southgate said.
“We only have a two-day recovery and I’m sure some of the guys won’t be able to get out there.
“I’d be really surprised if (Kieran) Trippier is out there. (Ashley) Young, too, so we will have to make changes and so what’s right. But we’ll assess them before picking a team.
“It’s the chance to have our second-best ever finish and the chance for the players to get a medal.
“So, there’s that and there’s the pride in playing for your country again. So, we’ll try and get the team that is best able to do the job.”
Captain Harry Kane will be among the more interesting selection decisions, given the sharpshooter is gunning for the Golden Boot.
“I don’t know (if he wants to play),” England boss Southgate said of a striker currently leading the scoring charts with six goals.
“We will see how he is. He’s got another 120 (minutes) and I don’t know the full injury update.
“Trippier is the obvious one because he’s had to come off during the game and (Jordan) Henderson is also feeling his hamstring so we will just have to assess it.”
Speaking after Croatia’s semi-final win over England, Lovren said he had been annoyed about questions related to a poor performance he had for Liverpool against Harry Kane‘s Tottenham last autumn, while Modric told ITV that “English journalists, pundits from television” had underestimated Croatia.
The Real Madrid star, who was repeatedly and universally praised in the British media in the build-up to the game, said they should “be more humble and respect opponents more”.
Speaking to reporters a day after his side’s historic win, Dalic said: “There is always some extra motivation and we always respect our opponents.
“Maybe the English team should have respected us more, especially when you consider where our players play their football, but this is football and sport.
“Maybe there was an element of extra motivation because of (comments in the English media), but there was also motivation to play in the final and make our fans and the country happy.”
Dalic was asked by international reporters if his side would be tired for Sunday’s final against France after playing extra-time for a third straight match – just as British journalists asked him if they would be tired after two lots of extra-time before the semi-final.
The 51-year-old gave a similar response, saying any fatigue his players might feel would be cancelled out by the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they had to win a World Cup, although he did admit that Croatia have taken a “difficult path” and will effectively have played a game more than France, who also have an extra day to recover from their semi-final on Tuesday.
Asked if he was concerned about N’Golo Kante’s ability to stifle Modric or France’s ability to soak up pressure and then hit teams on the break, Dalic said he was aware of Les Bleus’ threat but was confident in his own players.
A former midfielder, Dalic repeated his claim that Croatia’s progress to Russia 2018’s final was “a miracle” considering the country’s population of just over four million people, its young but troubled history and the relative poverty of its domestic football infrastructure.
To illustrate this last point, Dalic said Croatia does not have a suitable venue to host England when they meet in UEFA’s new Nations League competition in October.
He was also asked about his own path to the final, having left Croatia in 2010 to coach a new side in Saudi Arabia. From there he moved to Saudi Arabia’s biggest club, Al-Hilal, and then took charge of the United Arab Emirates’ top side Al-Ain.
But after seven successful years in the Middle East, Dalic was given a chance to rescue Croatia’s faltering World Cup qualification campaign and the rest is history.
He said he had to go to the Gulf because European teams “look for brand names” and tended to go for “big names, big money, big mistakes”, whereas Croatian coaches have been underrated.
That may change now, especially if his “compact” and never-say-die side can beat France, who will be playing in their third World Cup final in 20 years.
“In my opinion, Lionel Messi is the best player in the world and Neymar is very close, but all those teams who relied on stars have gone home,” he said.
“We have been compact, united and have fought for everything and we are still in the tournament.”
Defeat on Wednesday night to Croatia means football will not be coming home, but Kane says Gareth Southgate’s men can be proud of their performance at Russia 2018.
The 24-year-old Tottenham striker says this England side has overcome challenges which “haunted” past sides, after progressing further in the global tournament than any England side since Italia 90.
Kane wrote on Twitter to his 2.29million followers: “A lot of emotions today. First of all I’m so proud of this team and staff for giving everything we could over a long period of time together.
A lot of emotions today. First of all I’m so proud of this team and staff for giving everything we could over a long period of time together. We have overcome so many challenges that have haunted England in the past... pic.twitter.com/LuBl6QWDY0— Harry Kane (@HKane) July 12, 2018
“We have overcome so many challenges that have haunted England in the past.
“We have reconnected with our amazing supporters and have enjoyed this incredible experience together.
“It wasn’t the outcome we wanted and as painful as it is right now, I’m sure we will learn an awful lot from last night’s game.”
England supporters at home and in Russia got behind Southgate’s men, reviving the Euro 96 anthem ‘Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home)’.
And Kane is relishing the future in a youthful team.
He added: “It’s time now to hold our heads high as a nation and be proud of each other.
“I’m excited to be part of this team and the challenge to improve going forward. Thank you all for your support!”