The 2018 World Cup in Russia has just ended with France deservedly taking home the trophy, twenty years after they won it for the first time. Like much of the tournament, the final match between France and Croatia was a pleasure to watch, with more excitement and goals than the finals of the last few tournaments have managed to produce.
England, meanwhile, finished fourth. I won’t say “only finished fourth”, because that’s still better than anyone but the most blindly optimistic fans expected them to achieve before the World Cup started.
It was very hard not to get too caught up in the excitement and cries of “It’s coming home!” stirred up by the English media, particularly after England beat Sweden in the quarter-final with far less tension than normal and without even conceding a goal. I had hoped and expected that they would beat Croatia in the semi-final, but despite my heart’s patriotic protests, my head was fairly certain that defeating either France or Belgium in the final would be too much to ask for. “Our team just isn’t quite there yet,” I told myself. And as it turned out, we weren’t quite good enough to beat Croatia either. It was a particular shame because we had a really comfortable first half against them – my family and I were jumping for joy when England went ahead in the first five minutes – but then Croatia started fighting back, England lost their spark, and ultimately, the better team won. Then we lost the playoff against Belgium too, in probably our least exciting match of the tournament – or maybe that was just because it was the playoff.
So England can still be considered good, but not that good. Yet I feel that the positive comments being made about the team, and how everyone should be proud, are more than just empty platitudes, as the most cynical people will claim.
Did we have an easy route through the knockout stages? On paper, yes. In practice, is there really any such thing? Russia looked like an easy win for Spain. Sweden, Mexico and South Korea looked like an easy group to get through for Germany. Japan – whom we would have played if we had won our group – came close to beating Belgium or at least taking them to extra time. Brazil would probably have been a more difficult prospect than Sweden, but because we didn’t play them in the end, nobody can say for certain what would have happened. The teams you play in the knockout stages are the ones that were good enough at that moment in time to get through the groups, and some teams historically known for being excellent simply weren’t good enough to even get to the quarter-finals this time around. England were.
Yes, our play wasn’t perfect. Yes, we scored a lot of goals from set pieces rather than open play. Yes, three of Harry Kane’s six goals were penalties. But the team still had to get into positions where they could win those set pieces and penalties in the first place – and scoring is not a guarantee from any set piece or penalty.
Here are the facts. One: England have had their best World Cup since 1990, and only their third where they finished in the top four. Two: Harry Kane has won the Golden Boot, the second English player in history to do so. Three: England won a penalty shootout at the World Cup for the first time ever. Four: in our last major tournament, just two years ago, we lost to Iceland in the last 16, and there is a big difference between that and finishing fourth at the World Cup. I believe that these are things to be proud of, and that Gareth Southgate and his players can build upon with a positive outlook.
Two years ago, I was expecting nothing but disappointment from England in the immediate future. Now, with measured optimism, I find myself looking forward to seeing what they do next.