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England’s shot at immortality fails to provide enduring World Cup memories

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When Gareth Southgate spoke to the England players, some felt a slight crack in his voice, the manager mostly praising how “brave” they had been and that it was only a matter of time. He told them that they had “shown balls” by going toe-to-toe with the defending world champions, and they proved to be the superior side. Few things regret what had happened on the field because they had left everything on it. Unlike Croatia 2018 or Italy at Euro 2020, England had not been undone tactically or technically. In fact, they had done well against France, and had the best of the game overall, if not, crucially, the fine details.

And yet it was precisely because they played better that England felt worse. There was a numbness in the locker room. After all, it was no longer a trip. It’s about finishing one and finally getting there.

The England players and staff fully believed this would be it, even beyond Euro 2020. They thought they had leveled up and this would be a moment of delivery. The party only justified his belief. England had kept Kylian Mbappé quiet, had France in a panic and generally controlled the game.

However, that points to another contradiction.

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England knew they were on the verge of something that would go down in history, and yet how much of this 2022 World Cup was truly memorable?

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What will the people of Qatar remember?

There was a looted header from Jude Bellingham 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 suggests. There was an array of young strikers who impressed in that 6-2 free win, one of England’s biggest ever in a tournament. There was the resurgence of Marcus Rashford against Wales. There was Jordan Henderson’s superb goal against Senegal, which seemed to illustrate that England were moving to another level.

And yet, all of these were just promising or enjoyable moments rather than epic. Even the elimination against France lacked the theatricality of, say, Holland-Argentina. There was no delayed heartbreak. There was no Colombian penalty shootout. There was no victory over Germany.

That’s because there can’t be, since most of those moments were transformative. They were points in a journey that were epic by the time they happened. England is already past that. The players believe that they have finally become that complete team. Now they just need to reach the final destination. This time they didn’t because of the thin margins rather than the fundamental flaws of yesteryear.

“There were mistakes at both ends that decided the outcome of the game,” Southgate said. “But I think once again we have shown the rest of the world that English football is healthy.”

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Southgate went on to say that it bodes well for the future but, unlike in recent years, this World Cup is not about the future. It was about the present. Borrowing Qatar’s terrible official catchphrase: now it was all.

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Which is why it feels like a weird campaign in that sense, like everything is turning into something and then coming to an abrupt halt.

The belief was that it could be 1966 but it has ended up looking more like 1982 or, above all, 2002. As in that last World Cup in the Asian federation, 20 years ago, a convincing England had overcome their first four games with little difficulty. Then they had the misfortune to meet the team that could claim to be the best in the tournament already in the quarterfinals, while everything else opened up around them.

That’s another reason why this World Cup is like 2002. There is no truly complete team, let alone a perfect team. The threshold to earn it is lower. That has allowed top-performing underdogs to get this far. For South Korea and Turkey in 2002, it could reasonably read Morocco and Croatia.

That was why the quarterfinals felt like a true final in some ways. If England had caught on to the fine details here, it could have been theirs. The momentum would surely have been almost unstoppable, even against a defense as stubborn as a Moroccan team pushed to the limit.

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Olivier Giroud and Gareth Southgate try to comfort the England players

(getty)

The French were certainly not complete. They were in a panic. They were there for the taking. The trophy was there for the taking.

Southgate may not have made the most of the moment. Questions and debates remain about his continued inability to read a game and affect it as it evolves. Some close to the team believe that the substitutions came too late here and reactions were delayed. Southgate nearly brought in Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling before Olivier Giroud’s goal and persisted with them after that. Mount, in particular, then seemed like a solution to a different situation. He won the second penalty but it was divorced from the general pattern of the game, and simply the consequence of an inexplicable mistake by Theo Hernández.

From there, some would go even further. Not only would they have taken Kane off the second penalty, they would have carried him off the field. As brilliant as he can be in the box and with those open balls, Kane’s lack of speed became very noticeable in this game. There were two moments in the first half when England’s counters broke because he was too heavy. 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 to enter speed. Marcus Rashford came in too late.

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It is possible that this is one last problem that Southgate will correct, just as he finally got England to the right point in their tactical approach. They dominated midfield and overall 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 in my term in charge.”

Perhaps the in-game reactions will be the last flaw he fixes, to finally complete the journey, the same way he has done everything else. He may never get the chance, as Southgate is now considering his future.

If so, it may become football’s biggest regret about this World Cup. He should go with his one big moral regret.

There’s no other way to put it, as the England players didn’t issue anything resembling a statement.

This team did not use their voice at all in Qatar’s many problems.

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After the OneLove bracelet controversy, there was no subsequent gesture. They did not do what Germany did. They certainly didn’t do anything like Australia.

(AP)

And while the decision on the bracelet could be understood on its own terms, since the federations felt there would be “unlimited liability” for wearing it and it could well have led to lengthy suspensions or worse, the whole problem was that players from England had done nothing more. They had built everything up to this. The players had proudly spoken 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 that they did not do that here. They didn’t wear the bracelet, so they didn’t actually do anything in Qatar. The controversy only exposed the lack of something else they had said in the meantime.

That matters, especially if we’re summing up the World Cup, and especially a World Cup like this. Unlike in 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 used the competition politically.

The footballers who spoke about this would have had an impact. The State of Qatar was in step with him and he would not have been able to push back as abrasively as he has at other critics. He would have embarrassed him.

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Instead, England invited one of the Qatari ambassadors to the camp, David Beckham. That carried a symbolism of its own, even given Beckham’s rich history on the jersey.

Their successors had no impact on the important issues of this World Cup.

They did not cover themselves in glory here. And was that really worth it, particularly since the World Cup didn’t end in glory? Was the lack of pronouncement on issues that transcend football all because of this?

That’s something that may not be viewed so favorably at the time, especially given how less than memorable the campaign was overall.

Of course, all that should not be attributed to England.

Migrant workers and human rights groups are still waiting for most of the other squads to speak up as well. Similarly, the belief within those groups is that it should be the responsibility of the Football Association and not the players. The sources maintain that the federation received the best possible advice on all of this, which could have “prevented the armband incident” long before it happened. It could have gone another way.

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Instead, it is this that will be a matter of registration.

As for England’s tournament record, how well they played against France doesn’t really come into play. Instead, it just prolongs the wait for a trophy, so that 56 years becomes at least 58 years.

The England coaching staff are impassive before the opening whistle

(getty)

As if the pain of that wasn’t enough, there’s another surprising fact.

Of all the countries that have ever won an international tournament, be it the World Cup or a continental trophy, there are only five teams whose time since another win has been longer than England’s. They are the winners of Euro 1960 USSR; 1960 Asian Champions South Korea; 1962 African champions Ethiopia; Bolivia, champion of the Copa América in 1963; and the 1964 Asian Cup winners, Israel.

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One of them no longer exists while Israel no longer plays in Asia.

It’s quite a company to keep. It’s all the more frustrating given the level England were up against on Sunday. That is the company to which this team belongs, with the best in the world. The players know it. They just have nothing to show for it.

Instead, a campaign that seemed like it was going to be unforgettable will be mostly forgotten.

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