Of all the mistakes made by Englishmen off on foreign adventures Wednesday, the first and worst of them was allowing a prince of the realm out in public where he could be asked that question.
A few hours before the national team played Croatia in the World Cup semi-final, someone shouted up at Prince Harry during a tour stop in Dublin, “Is football coming home?”
There was an awful pause. The prince had a few answers to choose from and none were any good. Unfortunately, he picked the worst of his options: “Most definitely.”
He missed a word at the end.
Fifty-two years on from its only World Cup triumph and 28 from its last epic disappointment, England has a new national sporting disaster to occupy its nightmares. Losing 2-1 to come-from-behind Croatia was, in its way, the worst of them all.
Measured against that agony, the ecstasy could not be greater.
No country in the world punches further above its weight in soccer than Croatia (pop. 4.2 million). More than that, it might fairly be said that Croatia’s identity was built on the sport.
In local mythology, the dissolution of Yugoslavia was tipped over by an abandoned match and subsequent riot in 1990 in Zagreb between fans of Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade – the so-called “game that was never played.”
Following civil war, Croatia signalled its arrival onto the global stage with an unlikely run to the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup. The heroes of that team are regarded at home more as nation builders than athletes.
Now there’s an even more golden generation to celebrate. In a nice echo of history, Croatia will play France in Sunday’s final – the team that put it out in ’98.
If Croatia is once again stitched together by soccer, England has found another way to be pulled apart by it.
Going into the tournament, the current roster was regarded as a beta model for some future, finished team. Everything about the team was new – new lineup, new coach, new attitude.
Much was made of the players’ improvements on the psychological side. Traditionally, English teams crumbled under pressure from home. This one was taught to reframe those emotions. The word “nervous” was replaced by “excited.” Penalty shots were no longer a source of terror, but an “opportunity.”
Everyone involved hit those speaking notes in interviews, of which there were many more. English soccer was turned from a boot camp into a hippie community of fun guys doing fun things and, most importantly, being seen to have fun doing them.
In one of their final training sessions, instead of kicking around a ball, the English players tossed around rubber chickens. Fun!
But after beating Sweden in the quarters, the tone flipped. The English players received new orders from their 53 million commanders back at home base: “Enough with the fun. The situation has grown serious.”
It did not seem to affect the team in the early going of Wednesday’s match. England dominated the run of play, using the free-wheeling style that suddenly seemed its trademark.
England scored after five minutes from a free kick. In keeping with the Bad News Bears feel of the team, it was curled in by Kieran Trippier.
Until a few months ago, Mr. Trippier was nailed to the bench at his professional club. Now he could look forward to hanging his picture into the National Portrait Gallery.
But as the game ground on, England could find no further purchase. Croatia came out in the second half intent on pressing. England unwisely fell back, inviting calamity.
The game’s best player, Ivan Perisic, scored in the 68th minute with an outrageous flick of his foot. He hit a post a few minutes later.
All the psychology was now out the window. England was starting to look its familiar self and not in a good way. Out of synch, the players snapping at each other, mobbing the referee after every whistle.
None of them was playing on the field any more. They were trapped on it.
It went to an extra period – Croatia’s third in three games. The English defence fell asleep on a ball headed back into the area by Mr. Perisic. Mario Mandzukic spun away from two pylons in white and planted the ball in the corner.
In the final, frantic minutes, Mr. Trippier was forced off by injury. He was carried up the sideline by two physiotherapists, weeping as he went. You could not help but measure this forlorn figure with the one who’d been so close to legend two hours before.
At the whistle, as the players lay there dazed, England did not look like a team that had exceeded expectations – which it very definitely is. The players looked like those who will spend the rest of their lives feeling bitter regret.
“A thrilling tease,” the country’s great play-by-play man, Peter Drury, said in summation, followed by the “old, familiar emptiness.”
The emptiness is familiar, but this was a different sort. The English had it, against a team of aged, exhausted players from a country as populous as Alberta, and they let it go. That’s a new one.
These sorts of opportunities at a World Cup are so rare that one is a jackpot. Two happens almost never.
“Tonight we weren’t quite there,” said England’s manager, Gareth Southgate. “But the team will be stronger for that.”
For a few days there, Mr. Southgate was the most roundly popular Englishman since Churchill on VE Day. His shyness and knack for saying the generous thing resonated at a time of great uncertainty in the country’s history.
But he may have got that one wrong.
Nobody back home wants to hear “Next time!” yet. They’ll be feeling gutted about this time for a long while. A few days ago, they’d have been happy with good enough. Now it’s possible they may never get over this time.
So were I Mr. Southgate, I’d take a nice, long holiday to let emotions cool. Only then would I bring whatever remains of football home.