The scourge of missed penalties returned to haunt England last night as their World Cup dreams ended in familiar scenes of tears and shattered dreams.
At the final whistle, as players slumped to the turf and hands covered their faces, the abiding memory was of Gareth Southgate comforting his captain Harry Kane. It was Kane who had the chance to equalise this pulsating quarter-final against France when, with England 2-1 down, he stepped forward from 12 yards out.
But when he blazed over, you could hear the howls of anguish reverberate all the way from Doha to London. The tears of these England players will soon subside. But the sting of this loss will surely linger.
“As you’d expect he is very, very low, but he has got nothing to reproach himself for,” said Southgate afterwards. “We are in the position we are as a team because of his leadership and goals.”
And, as if to anticipate the morning tabloid headlines, Southgate then added: “No recriminations, the players have been brilliant and we win and lose as a team.”
What made his defeat hurt even more was that this World Cup reeked of enticing possibilities. England’s management team have always believed that France would be their biggest block to glory here in Qatar. But they knew that if they won they would face Morocco, who were 300-1 underdogs before the tournament, in the semi-finals.
We are constantly being told there are no easy games at international level. But Southgate would have taken that.
As it was, there was so much here for England to be proud about as they went toe-to-toe with the world champions for 90 minutes. They were bold, they were inventive. They pushed forward in a style that shed their familiar conservatism.
And, at times, it seemed that all sorts of enticing possibilities were opening up, especially after Kane’s penalty early in the second half equalised Aurélien Tchouaméni’s early thunderbolt.
But in a final 15 minutes laced with impossible tension, Oliver Giroud put France 2-1 ahead – and then for Kane to miss a second penalty that would have probably sent the tie into extra time.
“The players know how close they have come,” admitted Southgate. “They know they have pushed a top nation all the way. More possession. More shots on goal. I am very proud of how they have been. But tonight we have come up short. We felt we could win the tournament.”
Since England’s sole World Cup triumph in 1966 their results in the knockout stages have followed a simple repetitive formula: they lose to the first powerhouse they face. And so it proved. But there was no shame in this defeat.
Questions had lingered about Southgate’s tactics in the biggest games, when the stakes are so high even a Vegas high-roller might blink. England had been 1-0 up against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, and again against Italy in the Euro 2020 final, only to concede ground and, eventually, the game. Not this time.
It was a sign of Southgate’s confidence that he kept the same team of players that beat Senegal in the last 16, lined up in a 4-3-3 formation. Initially, however, they were too cautious and deservedly went behind after 17 minutes. But the blow came early enough to shake England out of their lethargy. And they responded magnificently.
There were signs before Kane eventually equalised that England were controlling the middle eight of this game, with France’s keeper Hugo Lloris having to push away a deflected Kane shot. And when, early in the second half, Tchouaméni hung out a leg and brought Bukayo Saka down, England were deservedly level from the penalty spot.
The game was opening up, becoming looser and more ragged. But as the match entered the final 15 minutes, France found a second wind. England were given ample warning of what was to come when Giroud shot at Pickford from eight yards when it seemed easy to score. But moments later, the striker smashed home what turned out to be the winner.
There was to be one more twist – and turn of the knife. Almost immediately Theo Hernandez unnecessarily barged into Mason Mount and VAR rightly ruled it to be a penalty. This time, though, Kane could not maintain his composure and blasted over the bar.
Now French eyes turn to Morocco, whose manager Walid Regragui compared his side to Rocky Balboa after they stunned Portugal 1-0. “I think we are becoming the team that everyone loves in this World Cup because we are showing the world that you can achieve even if you don’t have as much talent, as much quality, as much money,” he said.
Morocco’s run here in Qatar is all the more remarkable given they were among the outsiders at the start of the tournament, while Regragui has only been in post since August. However, the Atlas Lions have now topped a group that included Croatia and Belgium, before beating Spain and Portugal.
Along the way Regragui has also created a strong sense of unity with an unusual tactic: by inviting the player’s mothers into the camp. “If you work hard enough and you show that desire, that passion and belief then you can succeed,” he added. “It’s no miracle.”
England, meanwhile, have to pick up the pieces of another torturous defeat. It will be scant consolation that they pushed the world champions all the way.