“Inshallah England win today.”
That’s the message from Four Four Two‘s taxi driver, as we drive down a dark, deserted highway to Al Bayt Stadium for one of the Three Lions’ greatest World Cup matches in modern history.
“It’s cold today,” he notes, despite it still being 21 degrees. ‘at night. “I hope England wins – I like English people, very nice,” he added, transporting countless fans around Qatar during this tournament. “Argentine people, not very nice – people very rude. I don’t like Argentina.”
While the Argentines have the largest fan base in this World Cup, England probably has the highest support among European nations – many of whom are surprisingly under-represented. Was it the cost of housing? Was it the bad PR that preceded this tournament? Anyway, the usual numbers just haven’t traveled.
Last night there was just over 100 people in the Dutch section of the Lusail Stadium. France’s numbers weren’t exactly overwhelming either, but England’s were better, as fans began to dream of the previously unthinkable. FFT met a fan who had made the journey for this quarter-final against France after asking 30 friends and family to apply for tickets on his behalf during the pre-tournament public vote. Somehow he was determined to get in.
Outside the stadium, however, there was still not the same buzz before kick-off as the many Argentinians created for their quarter-final on Friday night. The locals seemed fairly evenly split, some waving French flags, some in the colors of England, although there weren’t thousands who showed up to support Lionel Messi and co.
The atmosphere in the stadium was not quite the same either, with a surprising number of empty seats at kick-off, despite the importance of this game and the quality of the two teams on display. The happiest man alive seemed to be the one waving the Moroccan flag shortly after their remarkable victory over Portugal – even though he had clearly played the wrong game.
Given the long history of the England and France national teams, it seemed extraordinary that this was the first-ever meeting of the two countries in a knockout match at a major tournament. It should have been a quarter final at Euro 2016 only for Roy Hodgson’s men to somehow lose to Iceland. Under Gareth Southgate there was probably never a repeat of that debacle against Senegal in the last 16 of this tournament.
As several favorites have been knocked out and the draw has opened, not least after Morocco’s victory over Portugal, this match started to look more and more like it matched the final itself – two of the top contenders for the trophy, who will compete against each other in the final eight. For the winner a golden chance to win it all. Both would be heavy favorites against the Atlas Lions in the final four.
Statistically, it was a clash between the best team of the tournament so far and the best individual player. The Three Lions came into the match with the best record of any side at the World Cup – won three, drew one, lost none, scored 12, conceded just two. Les Bleus had Kylian Mbappe, the World Cup top scorer with five goals. Little wonder, then, that most of the photographers lined up on the French side of the field rather than the England side before the match, eager to capture a shot of Mbappé during the national anthems.
On paper, however, France’s World Cup squad didn’t seem as strong as four years earlier – Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante are injured, while Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud seem past their peak at club level.
France’s injury woes also leave them missing the deep roster they enjoyed in 2018 – England’s bench looked stronger, with an abundance of attacking options. Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Mason Mount, James Maddison, take your pick.
What England still had to prove was that they could beat a side close to the top of the FIFA rankings. They had only done it once in the World Cup – against Argentina in the group stage in 2002 – since the rankings were introduced 30 years ago.
Victory over Germany in the last 16 at Euro 2020 was impressive and opened their way to the final, although home advantage had made Southgate’s men minor favorites for that match.
Victory against Brazil in 2002 would have given England a real chance to lift the trophy – they would have faced Turkey in the semi-finals and then Germany in the final, which had previously been a disappointment. They led, but lost control of possession as the match went on, eventually losing. Against Croatia in the semi-finals in 2018, they led, but lost control of possession as the match went on, eventually losing. Against Italy in the Euro 2020 final, they led, but lost control of possession as the game progressed, eventually losing.
It’s been a common problem, perhaps not helped by players fatigued in the latter stages of matches in the latter stages of tournaments, after a long, grueling Premier League campaign. This time, a World Cup halfway through the season at least gave hope that that wouldn’t happen.
England entered this game fifth in the FIFA rankings, one place behind France. Argentina, in third place, was the bookmakers’ favorite to win the World Cup for this match; the top two, Brazil and Belgium, are already gone.
Almost an hour before kick-off, the crowd in the stadium was treated to a random performance by Dancing in the moonlight by Toploader – not that there were many people in their seats back then.
If possession was fairly even early in the game, it was France that seemed most likely to find a passage – despite all the focus on Mbappé and his battle against fellow speedster Kyle Walker, it was actually Ousmane Dembele posing the bigger threat, for Giroud to direct a header straight at Jordan Pickford.
When Walker went forward and England lost possession – although Bukayo Saka felt he had been fouled – Mbappé seized his chance for freedom. Walker unsuccessfully tried to sprint back, but the French star narrowly avoided Declan Rice’s attempt to take him down.
England dominated the rest of the half and also created chances but couldn’t quite finish them off – twice Harry Kane was denied by his Spurs teammate Hugo Lloris, either side of what looked like a good cry for a penalty, which went to a VAR -check but was not given.
Saka was consistently causing trouble, twisting and turning on the edge of the box, but the Three Lions struggled to get Phil Foden into play on the other flank, something that has often been the case during Foden’s England career to date. despite its obvious quality.
The Southgate side certainly wasn’t outplayed – there was nothing fundamentally wrong. This was probably always a 50/50 game between two good teams decided on fine margins. Whoever produced a moment of superior quality could steal the lead – Tchouameni’s strike had put England behind the game.
Early in the second half, a brilliant Jude Bellingham strike nearly leveled it, only for Lloris to again deny the Three Lions. Soon, the French goalkeeper was finally beaten, emphatically from the penalty spot by Kane, after Saka was felled by Tchouameni, following a lavish one-two with Bellingham. It was definitely not less than England deserved, as Kane tied with Wayne Rooney’s goalscoring record in England, at 53.
Could Southgate’s men go on and win, as they had from behind against Denmark in the Euro 2020 semi-final, a sort of Brazil 2002 or Croatia 2018 reversed?
Saka burst forth shortly afterwards, denied by Lloris. He has proved conclusively in this tournament that he deserves to be at this level – he has been one of the most dangerous wide men at this World Cup. No wonder France seemed to try to take him down at every opportunity – they knew this was the best way to stop him.
France, on the other hand, looked very capable too, especially after Mbappe beat Walker in a sparkling running down the flank, but again it was England with the next clear chance, Harry Maguire headed the outside of the post as he looked for a quarter-final goal for the third consecutive tournament.
With 20 minutes remaining, England had 58 per cent possession and eight shots on target to France’s three. They had been the better side but were almost behind again when Dembele was allowed to beat Luke Shaw in the air and nodded over the goal for Giroud to see a saved header. It was a warning that the England defense paid no heed – a minute later, Antoine Griezmann crossed from the other side, Giroud got half a meter on Maguire and his header went into the net through the defender.
Immediately Southgate introduced Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling, surprisingly from Saka. It paid off: Theo Hernandez staggeringly pushed Mount into the back to conced a second penalty kick of the match.
“You’re not fit to referee,” England fans chanted, angry that a VAR was needed to award the penalty after a number of controversial decisions against the Three Lions during the match.
Suddenly, Kane had the chance to break Rooney’s record, but it turned into his worst nightmare. Lloris again tried to move to the goalkeeper’s right, but the penalty flew over the crossbar.
Bellingham quickly ran over to encourage Kane to keep his head up, but the English skipper knew the gravity of what had just happened. No one should ever blame him for that, given everything he’s done for England during his career. He didn’t deserve this. But one kick had ended the Three Lions’ dream of winning this World Cup – a World Cup they really could have won had they somehow got through this game. There was always a chance that this game would come down to penalties – this wasn’t quite the way most imagined.
In 2013, then FA president Greg Dyke set England’s goal of winning the World Cup in 2022. That goal seemed within reach this week, but unfortunately fell by the wayside, as with so many other tournaments in the past.
Like that defeat to Brazil in 2002, this was a missed golden opportunity – had they gone past France, football could have truly come home.
Unlike the tournaments of the past, England failed to win this World Cup because they couldn’t dominate possession against top teams, or they just weren’t good enough. Really, that’s the most frustrating of all.
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