Football is not coming home, but England will return as heroes.
Gareth Southgate‘s men ripped up the script in Russia, injecting hope and excitement back into a side that had become a byword for disappointment.
So well-known are those struggles that in China they even coined the phrase “happy football” to describe England’s knack at floundering on the biggest stages, often in a comical fashion.
Southgate smiled when told of that phrase at a press conference early into their World Cup adventure and admitted he was as guilty as anyone of so-called “happy football” after his penalty shootout miss at Euro 96.
But, like so often, the manager’s dollop of self-depreciating humour came with steely determination to redefine the country’s reputation – one of numerous examples of England talking the talk, then walking the walk, while the fans belted out ‘Three Lions’, previously so associated with Euro 96.
Within 24 hours of being asked about “happy football”, the Three Lions kept their cool amid Panama’s rough-housing and the Nizhny Novgorod heat to dish out a 6-1 shellacking – the country’s biggest-ever major tournament win.
Days earlier Southgate’s men had dug deep to secure a last-gasp win in their Group G opener against Tunisia – character again evident during the last-16 clash against a Colombia side more interested in outfighting than outplaying.
England displayed a street-wise edge that belied their inexperience, impressively keeping their composure and recovering from the stoppage-time leveller that took the match to extra-time.
Even more remarkably, they won on penalties at the World Cup for the first time.
Months of practicing, planning and studying bore fruit as Southgate’s players ended a run of six defeats out of seven major tournament shootouts, taking the side through to a quarter-final that they won with ease against stoic Sweden.
England went about their job diligently in Samara, but their greenness appeared to cost them when wily Croatia ratcheted up the pressure in Wednesday’s semi-final.
Ivan Perisic cancelled out Kieran Trippier’s early free-kick to take the Three Lions’ first World Cup semi-final into extra-time, where their energy and self-confidence seeped away.
Mario Mandzukic went onto snatch the victory that left heartbroken England players on their haunches at the final whistle.
Predictably, Southgate kept his composure after his latest semi-final disappointment, consoling his players and congratulating Croatia’s as he once again led by example.
Calming, clever and honest, the former defender has inspired the nation over recent weeks.
#GarethsouthgateWould trended on social media and it was joked that he would lead the country through the stormy waters of Brexit.
Thousands of people then wore waistcoats in his honour on Wednesday after helping England surpass expectations by reaching a first World Cup semi-final in 28 years.
People can point to a favourable draw, but the old adage is that you can only beat what is put in front of you – and you only need to look two years back to Iceland to see that has not always been possible despite England’s individual quality.
This time, collective spirit and smart coaching allowed the country to flourish.
Prowess from set pieces – the ‘Love Train’ – complemented a clear togetherness, with the foundations laid at St George’s Park built upon in remote Repino, a quiet resort town 29 miles north-west of St Petersburg.
Love Island, Fortnite and Yorkshire Tea helped make the forRestMix Club a home from home, while the nearby media centre saw boundaries broken down between players and reporters.
The NFL-style open media day in Burton set the tone as the ‘us against them’ mentality faded, with players playing darts against reporters and speaking with disarming openness, most notably Danny Rose on his battle with depression.
Candidness coupled with players’ social media savvy has helped reconnect with fans and puncture public apathy, while England heeded the advice to write their own stories on the pitch.
Harry Kane spoke of his belief that England could challenge for the trophy hours after being named captain and shot himself to the cusp of the Golden Boot, while Tottenham team-mate Trippier shone at right-back.
Inexperienced goalkeeper Pickford repaid Southgate’s faith behind a defence in which cult hero Harry Maguire was an imposing presence – as well as a meme sensation. John Stones performed admirably and Kyle Walker worked diligently as makeshift centre-back.
Raheem Sterling coped with inexplicable criticism before the tournament, and at times during, as he proved a nuisance throughout.
Unfortunately he was unable to get the goal his play deserves, but Saturday’s third-place play-off against Belgium could provide another chance for him – and allow England to hone their open-play threat.
That attack edge has been problematic in Russia, where the gaps that opened up and striking lack of composure against Croatia underlined the work still required.
But Southgate’s side were never going to be the finished article and the experience will only hold them in good stead.
This callow group will soon welcome even younger players, with England reigning world champions at Under-17 and Under-20 levels as the pathways put into place by the football Association bear fruit.
Southgate played a key role in setting up the country’s rejuvenated development system and nobody looks better placed to understand and appreciate that talent.
The future looks bright going into Euro 2020 and beyond, so while football might not be coming home this time, it may well do soon as England begin redefine “happy football”.
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.”