The World Cup in Russia will go down as one of the most successful and thrilling FIFA tournaments in history. The showpiece saw France emerge victorious after seeing off a spirited Croatia side in the final.
A lot has been made since about how the Croatian dream died in Russia, with the small Balkan nation coming within touching distance of the game’s biggest prize. However, there was another equally heartbreaking story to be born in this tournament, and it belonged to England.
Before the tournament kicked-off, there was a feeling of apathy and disconnect between the Three Lions and their fan base. Decades of disappointment on the international stage reached its apex when the minnows Iceland knocked England out of Euro 2016. For many English fans that was the final straw.
They were done putting hopes in this perennially underperforming team.
The Three Lions began the tournament without the media attention that the likes of Portugal, France, and Brazil enjoyed. UK betting sites had them as outsiders to make it to the final, with Belgium, France, and even Switzerland all considered better cash investments than England.
Gareth Southgate picked a very young side, with an average age of just under 25 years. It was one of the youngest teams at the tournament, and there was the sense among fans that this set of young Lions was not experienced enough to leave a mark in Russia.
How wrong were they! Straightforward wins over Panama and Tunisia booked England a place in the last 16 were they faced Colombia and Radamel Falcao.
The threatening Colombia was cast aside after penalties, and with them went the haunting memories of previously failed penalty shootouts. It had been decades since England last won a shootout in a major tournament.
Germany crashed out, and Russia took care of Spain. Suddenly, there was a clear route to the final. More flights from London to Russia were booked, previously indifferent fans began to dream, and chants of ‘it’s coming home’ became a running meme on social media.
Goals from Dele Alli and Harry Maguire saw the team overpower Sweden in the quarter-final. More and more fans made their way to Russia, allowing themselves to believe again as Gareth Southgate had repaired the disconnect between the team and their supporters.
The fans might have been telling themselves there was still no chance, but why were they there? Because this team had made them care again.
A Kieran Trippier free kick put them ahead early on in the semis, and the dream suddenly started transforming into reality.
England was going to a World Cup final!
But such is football that heartbreak is never far from those who dare to dream.
Ivan Periši? equalized for Croatia to send the game to extra time, and all of England’s composure all but evaporated. Hoofed clearances, sloppy passing, and wayward shooting had denied it a victory inside 90 minutes, with star Harry Kane guilty of missing several presentable chances.
120 minutes in, and it finally happened. It had been coming, and there was a feeling of resignation among the English fans. Mario Mandžuki? poked home what would prove to be England’s downfall. Eight desperate minutes passed, and the referee officially put an end to all hopes with the final blast of his whistle.
Croatia was to play the final in Moscow, and England’s young team remained on the pitch, crying as their manager did his best to console them. A sad story it might be, but this was England reasserting itself on the global stage.
It shushed its detractors, racking up some of the best stats, and producing some of the tournament’s stand out players, like Harry Kane, Jordan Pickford, and Harry Maguire.
This team has restored the faith of their fans. Not a lot of things are certain in football, but it will try again in four years for sure.
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