Euphoria. Pride. Frustration. Devastating heartbreak for England. Unbridled joy for the tenacious, experienced and more streetwise Croatians at the final whistle.

This was sporting drama at its most raw.

The emotional rollercoaster that embodied the second semi-final at Fifa World Cup 2018 left an enthralled global audience with a powerful reminder that there is no rival for the drama of live sport at the highest level when two tribes give everything they have in pursuit of glory.

Football is truly the greatest show on earth – and that is what makes winning so ecstatic and losing so painful. For the victorious Croatians the prize is their first ever World Cup Final, against 1998 winners France in Moscow on Sunday. An iconic moment for the newest member of the European Union, a country of just four million people.

It will take England’s players and supporters alike a long time to come to terms with the shattering disappointment of failing to deliver the seductive promise that Football Was Coming Home. At a time when the nation is in turmoil created by our incompetent politicians, this was the glue that bonded us all together. There is nothing on earth more powerful than the unity inspired by sporting togetherness.

For England and Croatia this was more than a game.

From a sporting viewpoint, what makes this episode so extraordinary is that England’s meteoric rise was so unexpected before this World Cup kicked off. The tournament’s youngest team with the least number of international caps between them, England’s Young Lions held the hopes and dreams of a nation in the palm of their hands.

The pride of our nation is that we did it playing some of the best football we have seen at this enthralling tournament in Russia. A breathtaking and flamboyant evolution of a team with so much promise for future battles ahead.

For Gareth Southgate to perform this miraculous transformation of an England team humiliated under his predecessor Roy Hodgson at successive World Cup and European Championships was pure fantasy. When the new manager took his place in the hot seat England’s self-belief was at rock bottom.

To reach the extraordinary height of a place in the Final Four just two years later is truly exceptional. Not just reaching the semi-finals, but the way that journey was navigated. A record-breaking 6-1 win over Panama, a first ever penalty shoot triumph in the first knockout game against Colombia and a flamboyant demolition of a boringly stubborn Sweden.

To fail ever so heroically to complete the last step to the Final, and what many will say was a once in a lifetime opportunity to write history and become football legends by claiming the ultimate prize, is heartbreaking in the extreme. Analysis of how the match unfolded and the narrow margin that separated England from glory can only make the 2-1 defeat after 120 emotion-shredding minutes more painful.

The truth is that England blew Croatia away in the first 45 minutes and absolutely played well enough  to have taken a much bigger lead into half-time than the specular fifth minute free-kick opener by Kieran Trippier. The elation of the wingback’s lethal strike that matched anything we ever saw from his hero David Beckham saw England create a succession of chances that could so easily have buried the Croats.

Two chances in particular will be re-played for eternity. On the half hour Harry Kane missed a golden opportunity to make it 2-0 when Danijel Subasic saved his initial shot  and was then fortunate to deflect the ball to safety after the England skipper turned his  follow up attempt onto the post. Five minutes later Jesse Lingard held his head in anguish after firing wide another gilt-edged opportunity set up by  silky skills from Dele Alli.

There were further England chances after the break in-between some crucial stops at the other end by acrobatic Jordan Pickford. As the game wore on Croatia showed their tenacity and experience as they slowly ground their way back into the match. But the match turned on a goal that many England fans will always believe should have been disallowed for dangerous play.

When Ivan Perisic struck an 68th minute equaliser it was a crushing blow in more ways than one. Yes, it was a flash of brilliance by the Croatian insofar that he acrobatically got there first when he raised his foot inches above the head of Kyle Walker who had dived in to try to clear. But as every Manchester United fan screamed, this was an action deemed worthy of a red card for Nani in a Champions League last 16 decider five years ago. On that occasion Real Madrid benefitted at the expense of England’s most successful club. The irony is that this time the same Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir was unmoved by English appeals for dangerous play.

Whatever you think of that decision, this was a referee who seemed reluctant to give England protection at key moments when Croatia got physical. It certainly proved to be a turning point that lifted Croatia. Perisic again went close and hit the post moments later with Pickford beaten and the England defence rocking. This time it was a fortunate escape as the Croats were now beginning to exert pressure and control of the match.

In extra time John Stones had a towering header that beat the croat keeper headed off the line by Vrsaljko. And then came the matchwinning strike from Mario Mandzukic. For England’s Lions there was no way back and the dream was over. In its place the heartbreaking memories of those key moments when history cruelly unravelled in Croatia’s favour.

On the flip side of this story congratulations to Croatia. As their midfield genius Luka Modric summed up succinctly this is the “greatest achievement in Croatia’s history”. And it is worth listening to his verdict on what fired his team to go that extra mile to beat England.

Not for the first time, the British media has contributed to our downfall.

Explained Modric at the final whistle: “English journalists, pundits from television, they underestimated Croatia tonight and that was a huge mistake. All these words from them we take, we were reading and we were saying ‘ok, today we will see who will be tired'”

BY JOHN GUBBA

LEAVE A REPLY