ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — England flew back to their base at Repino, just outside beautiful St. Petersburg, having lost a very big football match but knowing they have recaptured hearts and minds of fans. They will go home as heroes to a nation that has fallen back in love with its national team.
It was also to England and manager Gareth Southgate’s credit that the rest of the world also rather liked this ego-free team with the humble, courteous manager in his natty waistcoats. Gone was the old siege mentality and stuffy pompous feel of some previous England camps. If public relations won the World Cup, England might be champions. But on the night, Croatia’s extra midfield quality deservedly took them to a first-ever World Cup final.
England can have no complaints, though there was possibly a case for saying Ivan Perisic’s equaliser might have been ruled out for a “high boot” near the head of Kyle Walker. Especially as referee Cuneyt Cakir once sent off Manchester United’s Nani for the same offence.
Meanwhile, Harry Kane will be kicking himself for failing to convert a huge chance that would have made it 2-0. It’s a different game if that goes in (VAR would have shown Kane was onside). But faced with the world-class Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric, a basic flaw in the midfield make-up of the England team was laid bare. Of the trio used in the engine room, only Jordan Henderson has the instincts and qualities of a genuine central midfielder. Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli are more attacking, creative types, when the need for the more prosaic virtues of ball retention, tackling and intercepting became acute in the second half.
At 1-0 up but with the tide turning, England might have made some changes sooner, locking up the midfield with the more defensively minded Eric Dier (he didn’t come on until the 97th minute, for Henderson) and Fabian Delph to support Henderson and frustrate Modric and Co.
The loss of control in that area meant Croatia could start to supply the dangerous wide man Ivan Perisic, who might have had a hat-trick.
England grew ragged and started to look emotionally drained at the end of such a long campaign. The margins were fine but Croatia deservedly prevailed. And when the pain of this semifinal defeat heals, England can reflect on a campaign that’s changed the mood music around the national team.
Only a few months ago, many fans who had witnessed England’s turgid embarrassments at the last four big tournaments were telling us: “No one cares about England. Much rather watch the Premier League.”
The disillusion was easy to understand. That feeling was amplified by some remarkable revelations on TV from Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, who disclosed that the “golden generation” were undermined by “separate table” club cliques and rivalries within the camp.
Southgate’s trick, as an ex-international player, was to identify the issues that had blocked England’s path in the past. Building a far easier and more open relationship between team and media, he told the players not to fear the headlines and instead write their own history. Southgate’s band of brothers did exactly that even if the Croatia game was a reality check.
England may not be ready to end the “52 years of hurt,” but a corner has been turned. Young men like goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, John Stones, Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier have put their names up in lights, while Kane — without being at his best — will likely win the Golden Boot. Others are waiting in the wings, too, like the players who won the U-20 World Cup last summer.
England are no longer a laughing stock. They need to be taken seriously again. And that is quite a step forward from those years of being “home before the postcards.”