When Gareth Southgate spoke to the England players, some sensing a slight crack in his voice, the manager mostly praised how “brave” they’d been and how it was only a matter of time. He told them they’d “shown balls” in going toe to toe with the defending world champions, and proven themselves the superior side. There could be few regrets about what had happened on the pitch because they’d left everything on it. Unlike Croatia 2018 or Italy in Euro 2020, England hadn’t been tactically or technically undone. They had actually got it right against France, and had the better of the wider game, if not – crucially – the fine details.
And yet it was precisely because they played better that England actually felt worse. There was a numbness in the dressing room. This was no longer about a journey, after all. It is about finishing one and finally getting there.
The England players and staff fully believed this would be it, in a way even beyond Euro 2020. They thought they’d gone up a level, and this would be a moment of delivery. The match only justified their belief. England had kept Kylian Mbappe quiet, they had France panicking and generally controlled the game.
That nevertheless points to another contradiction.
England knew they were on the brink of something that would go down in history and yet how much of this World Cup 2022 was actually memorable?
What will people look back on from Qatar?
There was Jude Bellingham’s plundered opening header against Iran to set everything off, which may accumulate even greater importance in the future if the midfielder’s career evolves as this World Cup suggested. There was the array of young forwards who impressed in that freewheeling 6-2 win, one of England’s biggest at a tournament. There was Marcus Rashford’s resurgence against Wales. There was Jordan Henderson’s superb goal against Senegal, that appeared to illustrate England were moving onto another level.
And yet all of these were just promising or pleasing moments rather than epic ones. Even the elimination to France lacked the theatricality of, say, Netherlands-Argentina. There was no late anguish. There was no Colombia penalty shootout. There was no win over Germany.
That is because there can’t be, since most of those moments were transformative. They were points on a journey that were epic because of when they happened. England are already well past that. The players believe they have finally become that complete team. They now just need to reach the final destination. They didn’t this time because of fine margins rather than the fundamental failings of old.
“There were mistakes at both ends which decided the outcome of the game,” Southgate said. “But I think we’ve once again shown the rest of the world that English football is healthy.”
Southgate went on to say it bodes well for the future but, unlike the last few years, this World Cup wasn’t about the future. It was about the present. To borrow Qatar’s awful official slogan – now was all.
It is why it feels a strange campaign in that sense, as if it was all building up to something and then just abruptly stopped.
The belief was that it could be 1966 but it has ended up feeling more like 1982 or, most of all, 2002. Just like in that last World Cup in the Asian federation, 20 years ago, a convincing England had surged through their first four matches with little difficulty. They then just had the misfortune of meeting the side that could claim to be the best in the tournament as early as the quarter-final, while everything else opened up around them.
That’s another reason this World Cup is like 2002. There is no truly complete team, let alone a perfect team. The threshold to win it is lower. That has allowed over-performing underdogs to go so far. For South Korea and Turkey in 2002, you could reasonably read Morocco and Croatia.
It was why the quarter-final did feel like a true final in some senses. If England had just got the fine details right here, it could have been theirs. The momentum would surely have been close to unstoppable, even against a defence as obdurate as a Moroccan team pushed to the limit.
The French certainly weren’t complete. They were panicky. They were there for the taking. The trophy was there for the taking.
It is possible Southgate didn’t sufficiently seize the moment. There remain questions and debates about his ongoing inability to read a game and affect it as it evolves. Some close to the squad believe the substitutions were too late here, and reactions delayed. Southgate was about to bring on Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling before the Olivier Giroud goal and persisted with them after it. Mount, in particular, then looked like a solution to a different situation. He won the second penalty but that was divorced from the general pattern of the game, and merely the consequence of an inexplicable mistake by Theo Hernandez.
From that, some would go even further. They wouldn’t have just taken Kane off the second penalty but taken him off the pitch. As brilliant as he can be in the box and with those balls out wide, Kane's lack of speed became very conspicuous in this match. There were two moments in the first half when England counters broke down because he was too ponderous. It is now a growing concern about the country’s joint record goalscorer. That pace was arguably the main difference between the two sides on the night.
Southgate was then too slow himself to introduce speed. Marcus Rashford came on too late.
It is possible that this is one last issue Southgate will correct, just as he finally got England to the right point in its tactical approach. They dominated the midfield and general play against France. A performance like this would have been almost unimaginable before Euro 2020.
Southgate described it as “the best we've played against a major nation across the period I've been in charge”.
Perhaps in-game reactions will then be the last flaw he addresses, to finally complete the journey, in a way he’s done with everything else. Perhaps he never gets the chance, since Southgate is now considering his future.
If so, it may become the one big football regret about this World Cup. It should go with their one great moral regret.
There’s no other way to put it since the England players didn’t put out anything like a statement themselves.
This squad did not use their voice at all on Qatar’s many issues.
And while you could understand the decision on the armband on its own terms, given that the federations felt there would be “unlimited liability” for wearing it and it could well have led to long suspensions or worse, the entire problem was that the England players had done nothing else. They had built everything up to this. The players had spoken proudly about it before the World Cup, how “there’s more to life than football” and it’s “always a goal” of theirs to “use our platform to inspire change”.
The brutal truth is they didn’t do that here. They didn’t wear the armband so they didn’t actually do anything in Qatar. The controversy only exposed the lack of anything else they’d said in the meantime.
That matters, especially if we’re summing up the World Cup, and especially a World Cup like this. Unlike 2002 in South Korea and Japan, one of Qatar’s main legacies will be the plight of migrant workers, whether the tournament could have been used to improve their circumstances and how the state politically used the competition.
Footballers speaking out on this would have had an impact. The Qatari state was attuned to it, and wouldn’t have been able to abrasively push back in the way it has done with other critics. It would have embarrassed it.
Instead, England invited one of Qatar’s ambassadors into the camp, in the form of David Beckham. That carried a symbolism of its own, even allowing for Beckham's rich history in the shirt.
His successors had no impact on this World Cup's important issues.
They did not cover themselves in glory here. And was that really worth it, particularly given the World Cup didn’t end in glory? Was the lack of speaking out on issues that transcend football all for this?
That is something that may not be looked back on so favourably in time, especially given how unmemorable the campaign was in general.
That shouldn’t all be laid at England’s feet, of course.
Migrant workers and human rights groups are still waiting for most other squads to speak, too. Similarly, the belief within those groups is that it should be the Football Association’s remit rather than the players. Sources maintain the federation was given the best possible advice on all this, which could have "prevented the armband incident" long before it happened. It could have gone another way.
It is instead this that will be a matter of record.
As regards the record of England’s tournament, how well they played against France won’t really come into it. It instead just prolongs the wait for a trophy, so that 56 years becomes at least 58 years.
As if the hurt of that isn’t enough, there is another striking fact.
Of all the countries to ever win an international tournament – be that the World Cup or a continental trophy – there are only five sides whose time since another victory has gone longer than England’s. They are Euro 1960 winners USSR; 1960 Asian champions South Korea; 1962 African champions Ethiopia; 1963 Copa America winners Bolivia; and 1964 Asian Cup winners Israel.
One of them no longer exists while Israel no longer play in Asia.
It is quite the company to be keeping. It’s all the more frustrating given the level England were meeting on Sunday. That is the company this team belongs in, with the very best in the world. The players know it. They just have nothing to show for it.
A campaign that looked like it was going to be one for the ages will instead be mostly forgotten.
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