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Why England Must Not Be Disappointed by World Cup Heartbreak

Rohith Nair
FEATURED COLUMNIST
Feature
527   //    12 Jul 2018, 19:00 IST

FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENG
For a change, The Three Lions were applauded despite their exit from the World Cup

And so ends England's 2018 World Cup campaign in Russia. Not entirely unexpected but heartbreaking and agonising nonetheless. "It's coming home" memes will take a hiatus - at least for another two years.

Although there is an inconsequential third-place playoff yet to be played, nobody bothers with those. Only the trophy matters at the World Cup. As the hip-hop artist Nelly once said: "Two is not a winner and three nobody remembers."

But irrespective of whether England finish third or fourth, this is a side that will indeed be remembered. Not because they managed to go further than any other England side in the last 28 years, but also because of what they can achieve in the future.

This is a very young squad which had only one member of the starting lineup aged over 30. Fans across the country will thank The Telegraph for their sting operation that eventually saw Sam Allardyce relieved of his duties and the FA handing over the reins to Gareth Southgate.

Croatia v England: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
Gareth Southgate has taken England further than any manager in 28 years

Not many managers would have come anywhere close to what is a poisoned chalice and thrived in the 'impossible job' but the 47-year-old somehow managed to bring a magic touch. He humanised the players and actually made them a loveable bunch of lads rather than the untouchable glitzy Premier League stars they were destined to be.

Golden Generations of old have come and gone without even allowing their fans to buy tickets to the latter half of major tournaments, their cliques disbanded and the braggadocio doused by so-called underdogs time and again. But this young side has given the country hope.

"They have suffered. We've been trying to put smiles back on faces, and hopefully make everyone fall back in love with England." - Kyle Walker

Amidst a bruising Brexit campaign that has torn the country down the middle, 23 players and their inspiring manager gave them a glimmer of hope that saw a divided country come together to celebrate each victory that extended their stay in Russia.

When pundits would rip the team a new one almost every time in the past, this time there was cause for celebration and applause for what they had accomplished. Arch club rivals set their differences aside to come together in celebration for every goal, every final whistle.

Football Fans Gather To Watch England Play Croatia For A Place In The World Cup Final
England fans finally had cause for celebration during a World Cup

Gone were the days where the squad was picked based on reputation. Southgate had a clear plan in mind to pick players who could adapt to his new system and hardworking players who were in the wilderness a couple of years ago were now getting their feet wet in the World Cup to kickstart their international careers.

Skipper Harry Kane had watched the 2014 World Cup from the comfort of his couch. Harry Maguire had travelled to Euro 2016 as a fan with his best mates. Jordan Pickford's first competitive start for England was at the World Cup!

Sure, there is the odd criticism that the Three Lions gamed the system to reach the semi-finals. A simple group with wins over two minnows, losing to Belgium to avoid the heavyweights in the upper half of the draw, a penalty shootout win over Colombia and a win over a gassed-out Sweden...

But that is how international tournaments are won. Southgate decided to make do with what he had and almost took them all the way. They clearly struggled in open play against established sides but set-pieces became the order of the day and they were a sight to behold.

Balls were no longer lumped into the box in the hope that someone would make contact but delivered with purpose - where each player had his own role in a system. Basketball-like set plays were designed and worked to get the right men free. Penalties were practised and became an effective weapon.

Colombia v England: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
England won their first-ever penalty shootout at the World Cup

Of course, there were other glaring issues in this England side. The lack of a good playmaker, for example, with both Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli failing to mesh together in midfield to become effective enough to either provide Kane and Raheem Sterling with service or take shots on goal themselves.

Southgate couldn't just simply dip his hand into the transfer market. He tried to adapt and got a few tactical decisions wrong in the end. But he, too, will learn from this experience.

What matters is he brought together a bunch of players who had hardly ever played together before and got them to perform better than many had hoped. Saying they over-achieved would be a disservice to their incredible potential.

These players will now go back to their respective clubs and they will continue to fight each other tooth and nail in the highly competitive environment that is the Premier League. But as soon as the international break comes around, fans can rest assured that they will unite as one again.

"Previously when we came to play for England, it was a national team, now it's like a club. We used to go and train and then sit and stare at the same four walls.
"Now we're in all of each other's rooms. That would not have happened previously and it's all credit to the gaffer." - Kyle Walker

Southgate has shown that it does not require a stern hand to get a bunch of young millionaires in line. They are millionaires because of the hard work they have put in to get there and the manager only tapped into that sense of belonging at the elite level to remind them of their roots.

Croatia v England - FIFA World Cup 2018 - Semi Final - Luzhniki Stadium
Harry Kane will only come back stronger from this experience

He only had to remind them of who and what they were playing for - that pristine white England shirt with three lions on the chest. He created an atmosphere conducive to the media as well who in turn did not lambaste the squad like they used to in the past.

Towards the end of their campaign, Southgate had made an entire country believe that the World Cup could indeed come home. That in itself is 'Mission Accomplished'. Since 2002, the Three Lions had only won two World Cup knockout games prior to this tournament.

Come Euro 2020, this side will be a lot more matured and many players will be at their peak. They might even go all the way compared to the nightmare their side endured in 2016 thanks to a deluded manager.

What's different now is the belief they can and this World Cup has proven that it is no longer impossible for football to "come home" and that international football was no longer an anathema.

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Rohith Nair
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