Immediately after England scored in the fifth minute of today’s World Cup semifinal, it seemed like they’d cruise to a comfortable win over a clearly exhausted Croatia side that was running on fumes.
They did not.
Since they are England, and since England are honor-bound to collapse in the most excruciating way they can, they somehow did not manage another shot on goal until the ninth minute of extra time, 94 minutes later. Croatia earned this win with a commanding second-half performance in the midfield, but make no mistake: England fuckin’ blew it. Soccer is a challenging, frustrating sport, but the way that England just completely failed to show up in the second half and got laughed off the field by an inarguably inferior Croatia side defies logic. This should have been their party; instead, they crumbled into a blithering mess as soon as they ran into the first sign of trouble.
Nothing England have done this tournament could have prepared you for this. They’ve looked confident in every single game, even beating Colombia in a penalty shootout and calmly dispatching Sweden. Their quarterfinal matchup was a classic England trap game, yet they won it in a way that would have made fans feel reassured were they not still rooting for a team with a history of turning back into a pumpkin when the clock strikes midnight.
Only, this England team felt different. They were stocked with young stars like Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Raheem Sterling. There was reason to believe.
They even played like a side worth believing in for half an hour. England created dangerous chances and showed nothing but confidence in protecting their lead. If you were to pinpoint a moment when it all shifted, it would have been Harry Kane’s phantom offside/blown shot right in front of goal. Up until then, Croatia looked exhausted and lifeless. But after Kane and the refs conspired to blow it, something happened, and England found themselves unable to do much of anything. The midfield couldn’t pass it. Raheem Sterling struggled to create great chances. Harry Kane more or less didn’t show up at all. There was a new tension in their play and it really did seem to cost them.
Croatia also happened to wake up.
Other than some ineffective counterattacks, Vatreni had managed little in the first half. Somehow, they came out fresher after halftime, and the midfield group of Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić, and Marcelo Brozović completely controlled the middle third of the field, leaving England with nothing. Croatia continued to fling crosses into the box until it somehow worked.
Mario Mandžukić was particularly effective at fucking with England defenders in the second half, and he even survived Jordan Pickford’s attempted castration.
I kept thinking England would find a way to score. Their lifeless style and paranoid inability to even play a back pass in front of the goal were baffling. Everytime they messed up, which happened with alarming frequency as the second half wore on, Croatia simply became more confident. It turned into a positive feedback loop from hell, and the neurotic England side couldn’t seem to get out of their own way.
No substitution nor tactical shift could change them.
Gone was the flair that they played with in the first half. Whatever incisiveness they had simply melted away. Everyone looked really nervous.
However, this is not to say they gave up. England kept raging all game for a winner, and they even produced a few real opportunities. But that only made their eventual failure that much worse. There is no worse sort of game to watch your team lose than the one in which they played better, got in their own heads, then could not unstick themselves. Even if I was cheering for Croatia, it hurt a little bit to watch Jordan Pickford and John Stones yell and yell and come up with nothing.
Overtime once again proved Croatia’s time to shine, and Mandžukić’s 109th-minute winner didn’t feel all that surprising. England seemed sunk at that point anyway. Jamie Vardy was not going to turn that boat around.
Moral victories mean nothing, but England can leave Russia with their heads held high. They played some truly stunning soccer at times, and reaching the semifinal is a worthwhile accomplishment. This one has to sting, especially since Croatia were exhausted after a third straight trip to extra time. It will be a poor consolation prize now, but all these young lads will be back in four years, and they will be among the favorites to bring it home. Alas, a trip to the final was a bridge too far this year.
Enjoy it, Croatia.