LONDON – On the streets of the United Kingdom’s capital, it has been nearly impossible to avoid Work Cup fever. Every store you walked into during the past week has had “Three Lions” blaring over the loudspeaker. St. George’s flags adorn cars, homes, hillsides, the faces of small children, and just about any other surface. Normal human pleasantries like, “How are you?” have been replaced by “Hi, it’s coming home?”
A fever hasn’t swept this quickly and resolutely across the nation since the Great Plague of the 17th century.
But on Thursday morning, people will return to work with melancholy. Beer will stay firmly in glasses, instead of being thrown into the air in public spaces with reckless abandon. Harry Maguire will go back to his normal, meme-free life in Leicestershire.
It turns out football isn’t coming home after all.
England had a golden opportunity to reach their second-ever World Cup final, replicating the near-mythic feats of the 1966 team. The players and the manager probably had thoughts of the knighthoods they would receive in the back of their minds. Simply by playing the sport they love, they would become immortal in their homeland.
After five minutes of play against Croatia, the dream of returning to Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium for an epic final battle with France seemed like destiny.
Kieran Trippier’s first international goal was a beautifully taken free kick — England’s ninth set piece of the tournament — that exposed Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subašić’s woeful positioning.
England attacked with Raheem Sterling’s terrific pace, while playing intelligent short passes out from the back. Croatia, meanwhile, couldn’t string more than a few passes together. Breweries were making a small fortune from all the recklessly abandoned £4 [$6] pints of beer.
England fans in Hyde Park waste about $10,000 in beer on team’s first goal against Croatia pic.twitter.com/lfCxGZfqNW
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) July 11, 2018
Getting to the final of the World Cup was beyond the wildest dreams of any English fan. Before the tournament, Gareth Southgate had firmly set a target of the quarterfinals. It was important not to shoot for the stars: The foundation of the nation’s psyche comes from either underachievement or heartbreak in major tournaments.
It was the latter that crushed the dreams of a soccer-obsessed populace on this occasion.
As extra time loomed, England’s early dominance in the semifinal looked to be a long way in the rearview mirror. Suddenly it was apparent that national hero Harry Kane has looked off the pace for the entirety of the tournament. Suddenly it was apparent that scoring from open play was too much of an ask for this team. Suddenly it was apparent that the first good team the Three Lions had faced with serious stakes was going to knock them out.
After Big Game Player(™) Mario Madzukic caught the England defense napping for the winner in the 109th minute, it was all but over.
The proverbial England fan had been awoken from a wonderful dream with a cold bucket of water.
This writer has witnessed England in three major tournament semifinals. The first, in 1990, ended with penalty shootout heartbreak at the hands of West Germany. The second, in 1996, ended in penalty shootout heartbreak (with a pre-waistcoated Gareth Southgate ultimately failing from the penalty spot). Luckily, this writer was spared the agony on the shootout lottery in this instance.
At this point, it would be easy to point the finger at certain players, or pour scorn on a national team that has never failed to crush the spirit of its fan base in the modern era. It would be easy to scoff at the next potential players who will make light of the situation with their own Pizza Hut commercial.
But that is not how this writer feels at all. On the contrary, this writer is more proud of the England national team than ever before.
Coming off the back of a national embarrassment at Euro 2016, a young group off players — with barely a superstar player in sight — has managed to go deeper in this tournament than any Three Lions iteration of the last 28 years.
Southgate has picked a team to fit his system, and not the other way around, and it shows. The style is a pleasing mixture of elegant passes from the back and lump-it-to-the-big-man long balls. It’s modern and traditional, all at once.
This is a team which play for each other, which has played without fear and which has shifted the England paradigm from the furnace-level intensity of expectations, to inflatable-unicorn-racing levels of relaxation and camaraderie.
— ROBIN LLEWELYN-LEACH (@ROBANDTHEMOB) July 8, 2018
When all is said and done, the Three Lions have hugely surpassed expectations. At a time of political turmoil in the UK, they have lifted spirits, and come desperately close to creating a historically magical summer.
With the demons of past failures truly exorcised, the future looks bright for the England setup.
Bring on Euro 2020.
Ryan Bailey has covered soccer for Yahoo Sports since 2010, regularly providing insight on the beautiful game through his columns, interviews and video reports. Follow him on Twitter @RyanJayBailey.
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