LONDON - There are two ways of looking at England in the 2018 World Cup. By almost unanimous agreement, England overachieved by reaching the semifinals and, because of the 2-1 loss to Croatia, playing Belgium in Saturday’s third place playoff. The quarterfinals was the best most back home expected, or realistically hoped for, so to go one step further was a bonus.
Of course, nobody remembers who finishes third or fourth in a World Cup — or even beaten finalists — but there is no doubt England has united the nation and Gareth Southgate’s squad will return as heroes rather than failures as it did after Euro 2016 and the 2014 World Cup.
The media has showered the team with praise, Southgate is almost beyond criticism and the future for England is bright.
An alternative view is that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for England to win football’s biggest prize, or at least reach Sunday’s final when France plays Croatia. Of the six teams England faced, five are below it in the FIFA rankings; it beat three of them, won one penalty shootout (a draw in the record books), lost to Belgium’s second string before Croatia, the only decent side it faced, won 2-1. So England’s record is: P6, W3, D1, L2.
England beat Tunisia (a late winner courtesy of appalling defending), Panama (which could have netted twice before England scored six) and after losing to Belgium’s second string it drew 1-1 with Colombia, winning a rare penalty shootout. England then defeated a very ordinary Sweden side 2-0 before Croatia ended English hopes of true glory. Success comes in different ways, but being a semifinalist is good enough for a success-starved nation.
The failure of most of the big guns saw the draw to the final open up, but England could not capitalize on this. England’s football was more competent than charismatic, pedestrian rather than pretty, rarely raising the pulse, but generally getting the job done. That was good enough after two abject finals failures.
What the young team did was to interact with the supporters thanks to a polished public relations campaign with Southgate rightly winning praise for the way he conducted himself. New stars were born, notably goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, wing-back Kieran Trippier and center-back Harry Maguire, but England’s sum total was greater than the individual parts and its route to the semifinals was a team effort at a World Cup that nobody predicted.
We were told the Russian hooligans would spread havoc; instead the Russian public has spread happiness with barely a dissenting voice about a country that certainly needed a public relations boost. How much this has been because of directives of Vladimir Putin’s depends on your level of cynicism, but however the unexpected feel-good factor came about it worked.
Southgate was not meant to be England manager, so a timely toast to the Daily Telegraph reporter who entrapped Sam Allardyce in a media sting that saw the Football Association remove Big Sam after one match and appoint a man whose CV did not give grounds for optimism. The humble pie this correspondent has eaten tastes delicious and all the football writers who cover England are delighted to have been proven wrong by a man whose personality has made him probably the most popular national team manager ever, and whose waistcoat has seen him elevated to the unlikely status of fashion icon. Certainly no one predicted that Southgate’s dress sense would see Doncaster Council fly a waistcoat from its flagpole.
The reality is that last summer the Football Association chose Allardyce ahead of Southgate as England manager. Had it not been for the Telegraph’s undercover operation Allardyce’s England would probably have arrived at the finals with Andy Carroll as Big Sam’s favored battering ram center-forward and gone home after the quarterfinals.
Germany, Spain and Brazil were supposed to dominate, but the usual suspects went home early. Germany and Spain were past their sell-by dates, Argentina and Portugal were not able to rely on the magic of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for one last hurrah. Neymar, with his uncontrollable urge to claim non-existent penalties and suffer non-existent injuries, managed single-handedly to turn an adoring football world against Brazil. Ignominious congratulations to Neymar for achieving what looked impossible.
It has been the World Cup that was not meant to be in so many ways. England has defied low expectations and was certainly not meant to be in the last four.
Pickford arrived in Russia as a rookie goalkeeper, but will leave having proved himself one of the best in the competition. Not just his goalmouth acrobatics, but his slide-rule distribution to Trippier, the one England player who should be a shoe-in for any Team of the Tournament. His delivery from the wing and especially set-pieces makes him an assist specialist who has speed and stamina to spare. When Southgate first tried a three-man defense, the trio was Michael Keane (subsequently struggling with Everton), Chris Smalling (long faded from the international scene) and Gary Cahill (back in favor after a dip in form).
Had anyone suggested a year ago that Kyle Walker, John Stones and Maguire would be the defensive line for Russia, they would have been laughed at. Called “Slab Head” by Leicester teammate Jamie Vardy, Maguire improved with every game at the finals, imperious in defense and a growing danger in the other penalty area on set-pieces.
Harry Kane is favorite to win the Golden Boot thanks to his perfect penalties and clinical finishing on set-pieces, but he has barely had a sniff from open play though if he finishes top scorer how his goals came about will not bother him.
And so to England vs. Belgium, the match that nobody cares about. Does it really make any difference to a country’s success whether it finishes third or fourth at a World Cup? The teams met a couple of weeks ago in a game of little significance and now battle it out for FIFA ranking points.
Both teams will return having done better than predicted, but what will almost certainly be two reserve sides will end Russia 2018 in a match no one wants to play in.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.