In the 85th minute of a World Cup quarter-final last Saturday, the England captain, Harry Kane, was for the second occasion in the match given the opportunity to draw his team level with France. He had already converted one spot kick, in the 54th minute, and he is one of the best in the world with a dead ball at his feet from 12 yards out. By a quirk of happenstance, scoring this one would be Kane’s 54th goal for his country, which would take him past Wayne Rooney and make him outright England’s leading goal scorer of all time. You know what happened, of course. England didn’t manage to score later or in the eight minutes of added time to take the match into extra time and maybe penalties. England have made it out of the World Cup quarters just three times: in 1966, 1990 and 2018. Expect the build-up to 2026 to begin any time soon.
England’s failure to win the tournament obviously came as a huge shock given that the team had been predicted for glory by a financial model produced by Lloyds of London, which had on the same basis correctly tipped triumphs for Germany in 2014 and France in 2018. This was on the “insurable value” of the England squad, which was comfortably ahead of the second placed…er, France. Lloyds felt England would prevail over Senegal in the last-16 (correct), France in the quarters (non), Spain in the semis (they went home after the 16) and Brazil (no again). Truth is, I think we all know that sort of forecasting stuff should be left to distinguished football experts, which might often be an octopus. But then football predicting is an error-strewn process.
For example, if someone had said before the tournament began “two teams from Group F” will make the semi-finals”, the response would have been “Blimey, so Belgium and who?” Belgium were ranked second in the world going into the World Cup but they were no match for Croatia – beaten finalists in 2018 and the team who knocked out the world No. 1, Brazil, in the quarters in Doha – and Morocco, the first African nation to reach the semis as well as the first Arab nation to make the quarters.
Now the semi-finals are behind us, too, and Sunday’s final will be between Argentina and France, respectively the third and fourth ranked teams in the world. They have both been world champions twice previously. At the Lusail stadium on Sunday, France will be attempting to do what only Italy and Brazil have previously achieved: retain the title. Up against them, in his fifth and final World Cup competition, will be the Argentina captain, the magical Lionel Messi (he is pictured on the home page). Many people who aren’t French will be rooting against them, hoping that Messi can claim the greatest prize in the game, one which his illustrious talent so richly deserves. We shall see.
Meanwhile, what of England? Specifically, what of the manager, Gareth Southgate? There are those who think he has done a marvellous job over the past four years in getting England to a World Cup semi-final and a European Championship final, and now this quarter-final; others who feel he has not got the most out of the outstanding array of young players at his disposal. Hey, that’s football: whether it’s about the national team manager or the merits or otherwise of VAR, opinions vary.