England’s brief moment on top of the world

by Joe Krishnan

There were fears that holding the 2018 World Cup in Russia could hamper the competition through the host’s social and political issues. Even if these problems continued to exist outside the World Cup bubble, from a sporting point of view any concerns were quickly dismissed.

The quality of the stadia, the Russian supporters’ behaviour, the epic trips between stadia, the standard of football on show: it was simply marvellous. Who could argue with the logic of many pundits and fans that this was the greatest World Cup in recent history?

The surge of Gareth Southgate’s England squad towards the semi-finals had been nothing short of heroic. Early cautious optimism gave way to the genuine belief that England could win a first World Cup in 52 years. The performances of Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford, players who have experienced the trials and tribulations of the lower English football leagues, excited the nation. If past England teams could have been accused of lacking passion, this squad has it in abundance.

Five minutes into the semi-final against a battle-tested Croatia, England was in dreamland. Kieran Trippier lifted a free-kick over the wall past Danijel Subasic and into the top corner, sending fans delirious. Could this be it?

It’s the hope that kills you, they often say. Harry Kane doesn’t miss chances very often. But the Premier League’s top goalscorer had two golden opportunities to make it 2-0 and missed them both.

Soon enough, England was left to rue them. Croatia hauled themselves back into the tie, finding a deserved equaliser in the second half through Ivan Perisic. Then Luka Modric, who had been on the periphery of the game, was suddenly spraying passes left and right. Croatia were on top and England couldn’t respond. Twelve minutes before the end of extra time, Perisic rose above Kyle Walker to head towards Mario Mandzukic. John Stones who hadn’t seen the towering striker behind him could only look on in horror as the Juventus striker brilliantly swept home the winner. Croatia had shown a maturity in their approach: calm, reserved and focused. England looked nervy as they couldn’t get a second goal and paid the price.

Despite questions about coach Didier Deschamps’ future, France had reached the final and beat some difficult opponents along the way: Uruguay, Argentina and a Belgium that had proved worthy of its “Golden Generation” tag. Perhaps it could be argued that such a talented squad, led by teenage sensation Kylie Mbappe and the likes of Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, didn’t need much guidance after all.

But none of these three had played in a World Cup final before. Croatia were the plucky underdogs who had nothing to lose. That was evident in their play as they created several openings early in the match. Ultimately though, luck was on France’s side: Antoine Griezmann appeared to dive to win a free-kick and, after delivering a dangerous cross, Mandzukic nodded it beyond his own goalkeeper. Following a dazzling equaliser from Perisic, history was made just before half-time when VAR awarded France a penalty for a handball: harsh on reflection. Griezmann stepped up and made no mistake. Goals from Pogba and Mbappe put France in the clear and even a horrific error from Hugo Lloris couldn’t ruin it for France, who ran out 4-2 winners on the night.

The rain started to pour after the final whistle, almost as if to sum up our emotions.

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