Belgium 2 – 0 England
To some, this result was all the proof they needed. Sneers smeared across faces, they delighted in telling us that football wasn’t coming home. Laughing at the idea that the nation should have got so excited about a mediocre team getting a relatively easy passage to the semi-finals and then falling once the hurdles got higher.
In doing so, they mistook excitement for hubris and, perhaps more importantly, ‘football’ for ‘the World Cup’. Fair enough – it’s easy to take your eye off the ball when you’re trying that hard to be snide. For those who don’t feel the need to take a pointlessly contrarian stance when faced with anything more enthusiastic than a lethargic sigh, this was the end to a tournament that has brought optimism and hope – even in the losses.
This game didn’t feel like the dead rubber match that it often is, it felt like both teams cared though, clearly, neither would have wished to be there. Belgium were stronger, of course, and England could do with a Hazard of their own to be fair, but there were more sparks of encouragement even as the tournament’s embers lay dying in the grate.
After a lacklustre first half, England came out a different team in the second, like the Croatia match in reverse (but, sadly, without the goals). This was heartening to see, and Dier’s chip could have changed the game had Toby Alderweireld not slid in for a dramatic off-the-line(ish) clearance.
Harry Kane looked knackered, like he was actually wearing golden boots, but Lingard and Rashford ran enough for three. Pickford continued his run of phenomenal saves that will surely see him hold that position for a decade, and Stones and Maguire excelled as they have done all tournament. Trippier was lively and we can only wonder what might have been with Henderson fit – he’s matured into national captain material, marshaling his troops with assurance rather than arrogance.
The stats make for better reading than the scoreline: more possession, more shots on target, fewer fouls, better pass accuracy… but England lacked that killer final pass, that ruthlessness in front of goal.
So yeah, they were beaten by a better team here, but look at the progress from four years ago – from TWO years ago even. This is a vastly different team, with a vastly different outlook – one that’s facing forward at what’s to come, rather than over its shoulder at past glories. They’re not the Golden Generation, but they could enjoy a golden future.
Football has come home, the trophy stays put. For now.