Why England's World Cup Campaign Wasn't the Heroic Overachievment the Hype Would Have You Believe

After weeks of frenzied excitement and simmering expectation, football has pulled a Nabil Fekir, and is indeed not coming home. 

When the final whistle blew in Moscow, and ​England had lost to Croatia, the headlines changed from “It’s Coming Home!” to “OK, Maybe It Isn’t Coming Home But We Made the Semis and That’s Better Than We Should Have Done”.

The question this begs is as follows: in practical terms, did England really overachieve by simply making the semis, as the vast majority of media in the country and beyond seems keen to suggest? I don’t see how.

Take nothing away from the England players and management. Southgate’s side have galvanised the national feeling towards the team, and got the nation invested in international football in a way that hasn’t happened in a long time.

They had the second youngest squad in the tournament, with a vast lack of international experience, and only lost out to a very, very good Croatia side.

And on paper, sure. If you were told two years ago that England would make the semi-finals of the ​2018 World Cup, then you’d have said that’s an impressive showing, one beyond what you’d expect from them.

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But that was before Italy and the Netherlands failed to qualify, before Germany shocked the world by crashing out at the group stage, and Spain, Argentina and Portugal bowed out in the last 16. That’s the last four World Cup finalists, and the last four European ​Championship finalists, out before the tournament kicked into second gear. 

That has never happened before in the history of the World Cup.

It was also before England were handed one of the ‘easiest’ routes to the final in the history of the tournament. A ​Liverpool Champions League run, if you will.

A group of Belgium, Tunisia and Panama; Colombia in the last 16; Sweden in the quarters; and Croatia in the semis. Over the course of these fixtures, England won three matches in 90 minutes; against Tunisia, Panama, and, most admirably, Sweden. 

Some of the rhetoric that has been circulating carries weight. 

We saw a new generation of England players who at times looked capable of getting it done on the big stage, and we may well be about to see an England player win the World Cup Golden Boot in captain ​Harry Kane. It was, just about, a passable showing by most major countries’ standards, skewed into an impressive one by England’s recent failures. One which should, and has, inspired hope. 

However, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something insulting and condescending about suggesting that a nation of 53m people overachieved to make the last four, when a nation of just over four million knocked them out to make the final.

It’s an understandable delusion, one that is created by a solid 50 years of failure at international tournaments, and the coming and going of a ‘Golden Generation’ without so much as coming close to a major trophy. But it’s a delusion nonetheless.

Whichever measurement you’re using, England should be up there. In terms of population, player salary, club attendance figures, league TV income; England is a superpower. The only area in which they are not is the national team. 

And let’s not forget, they were expected to make the quarter finals before the tournament started. Is making it one stage further than that, in the most favourable set of circumstances imaginable, really the resounding, heroic success it’s being made out to be?

It was good. It wasn’t that good.

But for now, let’s call a spade a spade, and let realism trump blind optimism. England did what they should have done in the circumstances at this World Cup. No more and no less.  

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