MOSCOW — It seems silly to cry over sports, doesn’t it? For your emotions to spill out over the disappointment of a group of players you have nothing in common with except a passport?
When I was 11, my father dried my tears over England falling to West Germany in the 1990 semifinal, consoling me with the thought that one day, in my lifetime, I would witness my country win the World Cup.
There was every reason for him to mean it because, why not? He’d seen it, on a glorious, golden afternoon at Wembley Stadium in 1966, when those same Germans were outlasted in extra time and England could feel like a truly significant sporting nation.
It can’t now. Not really. Others, especially in soccer, have caught up and sped past to the point where Croatia, with four million people and just 27 years since its own independence, came from behind and proved itself clearly the better team in a 2-1 extra time win Wednesday in Moscow.
England, at its best, tries its heart out and enjoys a swell of patriotic support that is – with a few exceptions – stirring and heart-warming. It is good enough to get close, but it is not a heavyweight nor one of the elite, and that doesn’t look like changing.
That’s not a criticism, not at all, not of this group of worthy young men. It’s a reality.
But what do I say now to my 10-year-old son when I see him?
I didn’t cry this time, but I know his warm tears will fall down those cherubic cheeks I hope he never grows out of. Do I tell him that he’ll see England hoist the golden chalice that defines soccer excellence? I’m not sure that I’ll see it before I head to the great press box in the sky. Beyond that, who knows?
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This was a chance, a magical chance that saw hope spring from the youth and positivity of a plucky team that came to believe in itself yet had an innocence that made it so much more likable than its recent predecessors.
It sprang too from a head coach in Gareth Southgate who mixed forward-thinking with personability and whose choice of wardrobe – a tailored vest – became a humorous national fashion statement. These were joyous times these past couple of weeks, back in an usually sunny London and beyond, far beyond, into all the corners of the globe where Englishmen and women spread to make their home.
“It was an opportunity to do something that only one team in our nation’s history have ever done,” Southgate said. “At the moment, we all feel the pain of the defeat. Did we expect to be in this position? I don’t think any of us realistically did. But you want to take those opportunities.”
I have been an expat for most of my life and it somehow magnifies the triumphs and disasters of your national team when you are geographically separated from it.
Your nationality doesn’t define you as a person, but there aren’t many ways to show love for your connection to home and for many, this is the most obvious one.
It’s not life-defining or on a par with religion and any of those other inappropriate analogies that are too often loaned to soccer. It’s not in the same league as family or friendship or personal loss. But nights like this hurt like hell, and not for a short while either.
The sting is sharper when you feel something has been taken away, rather than a mere parcel of potential missed. From the moment Kieran Trippier stroked in a beautiful free kick in the fifth minute until Ivan Perisic converted a highly-skilled equalizer with 22 minutes of regulation remaining, a spot in the final was England’s to lose. It lost it, maybe, by being a little cautious and could have sealed it if then normally reliable Harry Kane added a second goal before the first half was over.
Croatia ultimately, had more raw skill and also more guile. The latter is the price of youthful exuberance – a trade-off for energy and optimism.
When Mario Mandzukic fired his team ahead just into the second period of extra time it was neither surprising nor undeserved.
“When you are in charge of the game as we were and you have the chances we had, you probably need to take advantage of them,” Southgate added. “We are the least experienced team in the World Cup and we were ahead with a chance to get to the final. Whether that had an effect on us not wanting to take as many chances, I don’t know.”
Croatia has been a high-powered side blessed with worldly gifts in the feet of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. It has been outstanding all tournament, despite surviving two penalty shootouts. It has a tight group full of character and toughness and is a worthy finalist.
Sometimes you just have to applaud a glorious moment for another country and England can only look on with a tinge of envy. Celebrating merrily, preparing for a final, cherishing the chance to play for it all; each of those are things England nearly had in its grasp.
The English journey felt different this time, more spirit, more enjoyment, more pride both within the squad and radiating from it. But ultimately, this, the same sweet pain, the kind of which can only be fixed by one elusive thing, that may never come again.