England players look on dejected following their loss to Croatia in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Semi Final match.
They sing of alcohol and agony, and of all those oh, so nears.
The anguished English now have another line to add to the lyrics of “Three Lions”: Football’s not coming home.
There was no penalty heartache this time, like in the semifinals at the 1990 World Cup or 1996 European Championship. But a 2-1 loss to Croatia in extra time stopped England from reaching its first World Cup final since 1966.
“It hurts a lot,” England striker Harry Kane said. “It’s going to hurt for a while.”
The fans sang of 30 years of hurt in 1996. Two years later, they refreshed it to 32. But the Lightning Seeds, an English musical act, stopped producing updates after that.
It’s now 52 years and counting.
England came very close on Wednesday. For more than an hour, Gareth Southgate’s young team led Croatia before the weary, aging opposition sprung back into life at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Now, on their way to St. Petersburg for a third-place playoff against Belgium, there are just so many agonizing misses to replay in their heads.
Kane. Jesse Lingard. Raheem Sterling. Chances to build on the lead secured by Kieran Trippier’s free kick in the fifth minute.
While Trippier did Bend it like Beckham for his goal, this generation of England players is far removed from the celebrity-obsessed David Beckham-era that straddled the millennium. They even managed to win a game on penalties, breaking the streak of five tournament shootout losses, in the round of 16.
“Wasn’t to be this time,” British Prime Minister Theresa May wrote on Twitter amid the latest Brexit turmoil within her government, “but it’s been a great journey that’s made the country proud.”
There is a genuine sense of warmth between this squad and its followers. The apathy of just four years ago — when the 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium was more than half empty — replaced by a newfound affection for the national team under Southgate. Fans could relate to players like Kane, Trippier and John Stones, who toiled through lower leagues to eventually reach the pinnacle of the game. The coach even became an unlikely fashion icon.
“If we have brought joy back home, which I know we have,” Southgate said, “that has been worthwhile.”
Tens of thousands packed into Hyde Park in central London to watch Wednesday’s match, roaring in delight and flinging beer in the air when Trippier scored. Thousands more made the journey from England to Russia, packing into the Luzhniki after shunning the group stage.
Even after Mario Mandzukic’s 109th-minute goal, a young squad was saluted for exceeding expectations with its deep progress in this year’s tournament.
“They are still maturing and Croatia have some hardened warriors,” Southgate said. “They have broken through a number of barriers over the last few weeks. We have made such strides with our supporters.”
And still they sang , long after the final whistle as midnight approached, about “drinking all your vodka.”
There are sorrows to drown, but this was not an embarrassment for England. No need to rip up the script that has seen England recover from the humiliation of being denied a place at the 2008 European Championship by Croatia with a coaching blueprint instilled through all age groups winning titles.
Champions last year at both the under-17 and under-20 World Cups, collecting the main prize will have to wait at least until 2022.
A timepiece at the national team’s St. George’s Park base has been counting down to the final in Qatar. It was compared to the Doomsday Clock when new leadership took charge at the Football Association. But Southgate has real optimism that his team can hit its peak in the Gulf in four years — from Kane up front to Jordan Pickford in goal.
“It’s clear to everyone the progress that’s been made in terms of the level of performances and the quality of the group,” Southgate said. “This is a thoroughly different journey.”
English soccer has now had its reset moment.
The country came to Russia to regain respect. From the ignominy of the failure to win a game at the 2014 World Cup to the meek collapse against Iceland in the round of 16 at Euro 2016.
“This team has taken us to a place that we never thought we would ever have imagined we would get,” Gary Neville, England’s assistant coach during the Euro 2016 campaign, said on British broadcaster ITV. “They have taken the nation with them.”
For all the playfulness in practice with rubber chickens, splashing around with unicorns in a pool and the sense this was a group of friends having fun on an extended summer vacation, there was always a steely, winning mindset.
There should be tinges of regret about falling short at a World Cup where defending champion Germany was eliminated in the group stage, and Argentina, Brazil and Spain fell before the semifinals.
England does not appear in semifinals very often. Southgate was in the last one 22 years ago. A post-match news conference after the loss to Croatia looked like the last place he wanted to be.
“I’m trying to get the balance right,” Southgate said, “of recognizing that tonight was a wonderful opportunity for us and you can’t guarantee that those opportunities will ever come again.”
Football will come home in two years when Wembley Stadium stages seven games, including the semifinals and final, at the 2020 European Championship. Southgate has to find a way to get his team one step further than in Russia. Without just coming oh, so near.