For the first time in recent memory, England played better than expected at a World Cup. Sure, its 2–1 extra-time loss to Croatia in the semifinals on Wednesday was disappointing, but the defeat was more palatable than most Three Lions failures. At least England didn’t go out on penalties.
You hate to see a team lose due to a cliché, but England really did score too early. Unsurprisingly, that goal came from a set piece—its ninth such goal of the tournament—but Kieran Trippier’s curling and dipping free kick was the prettiest of the lot.
It was, as they say, “a strike worthy of winning any match.” Sadly, England had to defend for more than 85 minutes to make that turn of phrase come true (they didn’t, and it didn’t). Fans back home discovered another problem with scoring too early, as the beers they tossed into the sky after Trippier’s goal would have come in handy once tensions began to rise.
Young yet pragmatic, this England team has proven to be sturdy at the back all tournament, but the Three Lions tempted fate by allowing Croatia to pass freely through the midfield. Once Ivan Perisic hooked in a 68th-minute equalizer, England looked like, well, England. It held on for dear life, saved only by a clutch performance from the goalpost.
England steadied itself at the start of extra time, and if it weren’t for Sime Vrsaljko’s well-placed forehead, John Stones would have written himself into Three Lions lore. Damn forehead.
Gareth Southgate’s team was prepared and well-drilled, and it also boasted that rarest of English qualities: a decent goalkeeper. Jordan Pickford was perhaps England’s best passer on Wednesday, and his stonewalling of Mario Mandzukic in the 107th minute was as much a match-saving play as Vrsaljko’s header.
Pickford even stood over Mandzukic and confidently barked at the fallen striker. It was brash, confident, and, because this was England, doomed to backfire. The Croatian medical staff doused Mandzukic in magic numbing spray after the collision, and he returned to score the winner just two minutes later.
Add a new shade to England’s vast palette of heartbreak if you must, but the members of 2018’s World Cup squad can fly home with their heads held high. Barring the 1966 side, every Three Lions team has fallen short on the biggest stage, but this one will be remembered for how it played, not the way it lost. Hell, even the tabloids seem to be giving the players a break, focusing instead on the refereeing stylings of Cuneyt Cakir.*
It all may be a little peppy for traditional English tastes, but fear not. There’s a cloudy lining to this silvery patch of pride and optimism, and it’s that this England team will be expected to perform well at future tournaments, and there may not be a worse fate than that.
It’s coming home, indeed.
Correction, July 12, 2018: This post originally misspelled Cuneyt Cakir’s last name.