Midnight strikes and the party is over. England crumple to the turf in fragments: one here, a couple over there, one more over by the centre circle. The Al Bayt pitch is a field of broken dreams, of hope and despair, and hope again, and despair again. In the VVIP seats, David Beckham is holding his head in his hands, although for only one of the reasons he should be. Afterwards Gareth Southgate will talk about how close they came, how much these players can still achieve. England are proud. England are defiant. But England are done.
It is of no consolation here to point out that England tried their best, that they had most of the chances and most of the ball, that they came with a plan and largely executed it to the letter. Nor is it any consolation to rehash the usual platitudes about what a great bunch of lads these are. All the above is true. But in the furnace of knockout football all of this only gets you to the finish line. It does not dictate whether anyone gets there before you.
The truth is that England were beaten here by the better team, which is not to say that France played better on the night. The difference here, perhaps, is between wanting and belonging. Between the little wedges of happenstance and self-projection that separate the champion teams from the very good. England won the game of processes, the game that plays out in the mind of a coach on a Friday evening, the game you play when you have no real institutional memory to fall back on. But France won the game of moments, the game of actions rather than intentions. And in a one-off showdown with everything at stake, it is the moments that win you the match.
Olivier Giroud’s header and Harry Kane’s penalty are the clearest example. With one bullet in the gun, Giroud did his job and Kane failed to do his. But the game was also won and lost in the smaller moments: the moments when France simply flexed their imperial strength, reached into their database of solutions and made their vision flesh.
You need Antoine Griezmann to find just the right pass? You need Kylian Mbappé to get out of a tight spot with three England players hounding him? You need to foul Bukayo Saka without making it look like a foul? You need your tidy defensive midfielder to ping one in from 25 yards? These are difficult things to do, and yet somehow the fact France have done these things before, under the highest pressure, against the finest opposition, makes these deeds more real before they have even left the realm of the conceptual.
To an extent, of course, this is simply great footballers doing great things. But Kane is a great footballer. Phil Foden is a great footballer. Jude Bellingham is one of the best midfielders in the world, but in the biggest game of his life he was no better than average. This is why winning teams talk about the final step of the journey being the hardest: a place beyond plans or processes, the sort of place even the experienced Southgate cannot describe because he himself has never been there.
Think how much better – lavishly, extravagantly better – Spain needed to be than everyone else simply to win one World Cup, by a single goal in extra time. Think how many times Real Madrid have won the Champions League against teams who were theoretically better than them, who did everything right, who followed the mantras, controlled the controllables. But there comes a point where events are no longer under your control, the point at which instinct and will and self-mythology – the kind of things you can’t train or put in a protein smoothie – take over.
England rose to the occasion. France had no need, for the occasion was already France-sized. England were brave. France had no need to be brave, as their default level of courage was already sufficient. England believed. France knew. Even in the stickier periods, as England surged and the noise swelled, France simply kept their discipline, made sure every necessary ball was contested, every necessary shot was blocked. And when they had five good minutes, they scored.
Which is why to home in on the finer details of this match, to fixate on passing maps and substitutions and refereeing decisions and 1%ers, is really to discuss a game that never happened.
Every klutz with a mobile phone will have an opinion on Southgate, on England, on the talent pathway, on Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford, on what this team should or should not be capable of achieving. But I would wager nothing that unfolded in these 100 minutes will have moved a single of these opinions a single iota.
This is the maddening frustration of defeat: the way it fractures upon contact into a million subjectivities, a million pieces of content, a blur of blame and exoneration and forensic analysis. Find the moment of cleanness, as France did, and all of this vaporises in an instant. Turn the word to deed, and the word no longer serves any purpose.
Ultimately, when you boil this down, France did and England did not. Is football a simple or a complex game? This match, in a way, was the perfect answer.