They will doubtless have faced each other over 12 yards more times than they care to recall, in the peace and privacy of Tottenham Hotspur’s training hub accompanied only by the distant buzz of the M25, and here they were anew in the winter desert in front of the world.
Harry Kane vs Hugo Lloris from the penalty spot twice over with a place in the World Cup semi-finals at stake. A game poised between two sides operating right at the top of their respective form, a contest that felt like the big elite end of a tournament at last. Two old team-mates who come out the tunnel one behind the other at Spurs, the striker after his captain and goalkeeper, every home game.
This was where France have been for the best part of 25 years and where England have only been for the last three tournament cycles, and yet – it is never too late.
These are the moments that define teams and players, and for England they fell to Kane.
The first penalty, after 27 minutes, he buried in the great traditions of Kane. The second time something changed in the universe, a tear in the history of Kane the master goalscorer, a moment that may never happen again as long as he lines up these penalties.
The 84th minute, France leading 2-1, and a second Kane penalty. The tie opened up anew. A moment for England to seize their place in the game and then back on with the business of trying to win it. Up stepped Kane to do what he does so well. High and wild. Not even really close to Lloris’s goal.
The stadium stopped. Had we seen that right? The desert can do strange things to your line of sight but this – what was it?
The cameras cut to his face and it is hard to say that Kane himself knew. He is inscrutable at the best of times but something seemed lost in him in that moment.
Another chance to equalise and this time Kane isn't so lucky!
The England skipper sends the ball over the bar and it looks like their chances are on the brink... 😬#ITVFootball | #FIFAWorldCup pic.twitter.com/uO01lfF1im
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) December 10, 2022
A strong performance
Kane had been outstanding. He might have been England’s best player on the night after, perhaps, Bukayo Saka. His great economy of touch. His mastery of Dayot Upamecano who seemed to know exactly what Kane was going to do only a fraction of a second after it had been done to the French defender.
Perhaps there should have been three penalties for a foul by Upamecano on Kane in the first half. Either way this was the England captain in his sharpest focus.
What happened for that second penalty? What happened to the great dispatcher? The sure bet? Nothing seems to ruffle the feathers, be it delay or provocation, or the sight of a man between the sticks who – for the rest of the year – happens to be a close colleague or friend. All the greats miss sometimes. But surely not these times.
First time around and it never looked or felt that Kane would miss. Not through the delay that ensued after the foul on Saka from Aurelien Tchouameni, through Lloris’s waiting deep in his net to be called forward finally by the Brazilian referee.
When at last Kane took that little flurry of steps and then dispatched his penalty to his left, Lloris had already launched himself in the opposite direction. He turned, mid-air, to watch the ball hit the net.
They had faced each other – striker and goalkeeper – at a point in their international careers that mattered. Kane’s penalty, his first of the two, was to equal Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 goals for the national team and that is where he is now, at the very top. For Lloris it was his 143rd cap, putting him out ahead as the leading appearance-maker in the history of Les Bleus. These are big careers and big players. The boy from Chingford has come a long way and the contribution has been immense. He heralded an era when things promised to be different to the past and for the most part they have been.
A different England
This was a World Cup quarter-final of grand scale. There have been those in the past when England have been playing a different game to the World Cup elite, chasing shadows in a sport with which they seem unfamiliar, gulping lungs of panicked breaths, watching Mesut Ozil disappear into the mid-distance. This time was different. A night when it felt that this was England where they have always hoped to be. That is competing with the best as equals, or at least as close as equals can be when one side has to win and the other loses.
This team will not be remembered like the others. They had a plan and a style and in the end it does come down to the moments, but it just makes it harder to comprehend when those moments feel so much at odds to what has come before. Old England, blundering around against Iceland or sabotaging themselves against Argentina or Portugal or Germany, or just losing their nerve and their shape and whatever else they clung to. That felt comprehensible in a different way. You knew what was coming: root and branch review at the Football Association. A prolonged bout of self-loathing.
But how to explain this night to the children? This was very different. A well-grooved team, playing with a style and a bravery against the reigning world champions. France would have chances and England would have chances, as mature, developed elite football teams do at this stage of the competition.
In other words, this England worked, and the change has been in a thousand different ways. Then the moments come and you have to take them. At the final whistle, Kane dropped to his haunches and ran his hands through his hair. When he was back on his feet at last there was a pinkening around the eyes, and a sense of disbelief. One day you presume, all this goes England’s way although when? Hard to say.