Once again, England have exited a major football tournament and extinguished the fervent hopes of millions around the world.
For long-suffering fans like me, there is nothing surprising about it – disappointment with the Three Lions is as normal as breathing. Like Charlie Brown and his perennial failure to kick a ball, the team is the teasing Lucy who urges us on, only to pull the rug out from under us at the last minute.
But for the first time in 28 years, England got to the semi-finals of the World Cup. It really happened: England was two matches away from eternal glory. Just a month ago, ending global poverty or landing a man on Mars would have been more likely.
What surprised sceptics was that coach Gareth Southgate had a team of limited talent that was greater than the sum of its parts, with no so-called superstars like David Beckham or Wayne Rooney.
Instead, we had players like the striker Raheem Sterling, whose finishing – for all his work rate – was more suspect than a North Korean nuclear deal. But there were also immense performers like marauding wingback Kieran Trippier and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who at times resembled a brick wall for making save after save.
On Thursday morning (11 July), they came up against Croatia and their captain and talisman Luka Modric for a place in the final. Given that much of high fantasy series Game of Thrones was shot in Croatia, it is apt to liken Modric to the Mother of Dragons. Just like Daenerys Targaryen, Modric seems so slight and frail that a strong wind could blow him over. Instead, the three-time Champions League winner dictated the game like he’s breathing fire.
For 45 minutes, it was England that dominated Croatia – was this the team humiliated by tiny Iceland at Euro 2016? Could England finally be in a position to win the World Cup for the first time since captain Booby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in 1966?
In the end, it was a bridge too far. Once more, the English lost their nerve and stared into the World Cup abyss. We got our hopes up for nothing again, and football still hasn’t come home.
Thanks a lot, Lucy.
After the 2-1 defeat to Croatia, what does the future hold for England?
Despite the crushing disappointment, this World Cup has shown us that there is still hope for English football, as a friend put it. Granted, England have little strength in depth at the moment, nor do they have a world-class playmaker like Modric. But the verve and conviction in their performances suggest that there is much more to come from the team.
The team’s future is embodied by Southgate – he of the dapper waistcoats and self-deprecating remarks before the media horde. The lad from Watford is coolness personified compared with former England coaches like Fabio Capello and his thousand yard stare, Roy Hodgson with his disastrous team selections and the pompously unbearable Sam Allardyce.
So where do England go from here? For now, there is the meaningless third/fourth place playoff with Belgium to contest on Saturday.
But the eternal optimist in me will never stop dreaming that football’s ultimate prize in the form of a 36.5cm tall trophy will indeed come home one day. As the all-too-familiar England football anthem from 1996 goes, “30 years (now 52 years and counting) of hurt/Never stopped me dreaming”.