The glorious, beer-soaked Russian summer that changed English football and the England team forever is at an end, and the old story of 1966 will remain, for four more years at least, the greatest ever told, although it took one hell of a World Cup semi-final to keep it that way.
England are out of Russia 2018, beaten in extra time by Mario Mandzukic’s goal, but not in that feeble, unreliable way that so many England teams have gone in the past. There were times when Gareth Southgate’s young team could have won this game, a window in the first half when it felt like they could run away with it while Croatia, like all good teams hung on and waited for the wind to change. A miraculous sporting nation of just 4.1 million souls, they will play France in the World Cup final on Sunday.
It is, after all, not coming home. It is not even coming back for a brief look-around and a robust discussion about the relative merits of a back three without a natural left-sided defender. Soon, when the Premier League season begins afresh this may feel like a dream, a dizzying tour of sun-drenched old Soviet Union strongholds watched through a mist of beer tossed over heads in box parks and conventional parks too. Only the third World Cup semi-final in 68 years for the England team and yet still a nagging regret at missed opportunities.
Afterwards, Gareth Southgate seemed reluctant to draw conclusions and he will know that there was something of the old England in the way that his team were rattled, going from a side that looked like it could not lose this semi-final to one just about hanging on. This Croatia team, 20 years on from that semi-final defeat to France, had the tournament ringcraft that every England World Cup team bar one has lacked, vulnerable for the second time in the knockout stages to a goal late in the day.
When Kieran Trippier swept in a free-kick after five minutes it soon felt like England might dominate a Croatia bent out of shape by the running of Southgate’s players who were occupying the places that Luka Modric was supposed to be. The little maestro was enclosed by the England midfield and it would take until the second half when the Croatia captain began figuring out the route, emerging into space at last.
Not just him but Ivan Perisic too, who scored the equaliser on 68 minutes and dragged his team back into the game, making the second for Mandzukic. If he can do it against France after three extra time periods in the knockout stages, then Perisic could yet eclipse Modric as the leading player in this team and this tournament. Although it never looked that way in the first half with England in the ascendancy and Croatia wobbling all over pitch.