Always Next Time


After a month in the warmth of the Gulf, England's beaten players landed tonight back in a country frozen in a sub-zero climactic spell.

France eliminate England 2-1 in Al Bayt

The Christmas lights at least pierce the glacial gloom, hopeful pointers to a happier future. Many mentions of Euro 2024 and the Three Lions have been made today, but for me this talk is premature barely a day after our latest loss.

World Cup exits stick with you as poignant pivots in the fan's life. We drown in a maelstrom of what ifs, anger and sadness afterwards, a prolonged post mortem of replaying the match in our minds or on our screens in blind faith of a different outcome.

My father, who was at Wembley in 1966 for our finest hour, was of a generation traumatised by England's surrender to West Germany in Leon, Mexico, four years later. The anger then was intense because the holders had thrown away a 2-0 lead, Alf Ramsey had made bad substitutions and Gordon Banks had been poisoned (bt the CIA?). It is claimed their defeat cost the ruling Labour Party the General Election four days later.

For mine the pain was the Germans again at Italia '90 in an agonising semi-final shoot-out. Every male I knew cried that night. I had grown up worshipping those players as a child and the Heysel exile since 1985 had meant that World Cup had been a redemption story for my country, with famous wins over Belgium and Cameroon before lady luck stood us up in Turin.

The Hand of God game four years earlier was pretty soul-destroying too, a Sunday night turned sour as Diego Maradona's genius and craftiness undid England, although subsequent World Cup exits varied in their psychological impact.

Missing the boat to 1994 was gutting, but a struggling manager and disjointed team were not up to it in the end. High hopes were dashed by another penalty drama following a crazy yet fantastic Round of 16 clash with Argentina in '98, before Brazilian class edged us 2-1 in Japan in 2002.

More penalty agony in 2006, this time against Portugal, before a 4-1 humiliation by a route-one Germany in 2010 in Bloemfontein (4-2 if VAR had been there to confirm Frank Lampard's strike) added to England's trail of tears.

Elimination in Brazil 2014 was not that painful as England had lost twice in the first round to better sides, while if we are being honest in Russia 2018 the Three Lions had a smooth run to the semis, edging Colombia on penalties before being out-muscled by the Croats 2-1.

In Qatar, England had cruised to the quarters again before falling to the first top side they had faced. The general reaction has been a mixture of disappointment, pride and stoical acceptance we had narrowly lost to the best team left in the competition and the holders after all. There were no riots.

But this was a better England team than the 2018 semi-finalists, blessed with a panoply of attacking options and a tougher midfield. While last night's match was far from an incident-laden classic like the Argentina match at France '98, the quality of play was high from both teams. No one was robbed.

Fine margins is the phrase doing the rounds - if only Jude Bellingham had not blocked Jordan Pickford's view of the opening goal, if Harry Maguire had got tighter on Olivier Giroud for their second goal and if Harry Kane had not skied his second penalty...

It is hard to know how to fix these leaks for next time as there was nothing major England or Gareth Southgate did wrong last night. The usual gripes about the referee and the lack of or wrong substitutions ring hollow, ditto complaints about the coach himself, who has forged a strong collective and achieved more than any England manager since Ramsey. I hope he stays on.

Yes we still have a good group of players young enough to challenge for the Euros and the next World Cup in the USA, Mexico and Canada.

But it is winning the World Cup we dream of as boys and the feeling of having missed a golden opportunity in Qatar in 2022 will linger.

Qatar 2022

Al Rihla Official Ball

Qatar 50/50

Qatar v Ecuador - Opening Match

Qatar is the World's Cup

Hakuna Matata

Hotels in Doha

Images of Qatar

Offside Technology

Opening Ceremony

Super Sunday

The Calling

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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