|2018 Fifa World Cup on the BBC|
|Host: Russia. Dates: 14 June – 15 July.|
|Live: Coverage across BBC TV, BBC Radio and BBC Sport website with further coverage on Red Button, Connected TVs and mobile app.|
England’s devastated players could barely drag themselves off the turf as they slumped in front of their fans at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
Gareth Southgate, his entire squad and support staff, looked in a daze as they stood just 20 yards from the banks of England supporters who had flooded into Russia fuelled by hope and the desire to witness history.
Southgate helped Ashley Young, at 33 the elder statesman of England’s side, to his feet while tears were shed by the youngster Marcus Rashford and many others.
England’s players responded to a standing ovation from those supporters but there was no disguising the pain – or Southgate’s determination to remind them of what they have achieved at this World Cup in Russia.
When they finally took their leave and returned to the solitude of the dressing room, it was to absorb the range of emotions they felt on this humid night in Moscow, to learn the lessons of the past month and use them to map out a brighter future.
England’s hope turns to familiar despair
England had history in their hands and a first World Cup final since 1966 in their sights as the clock ticked past 10pm here – only to let it all slip away and so leave this historic city with familiar feelings of despair and disappointment.
Southgate’s emerging side were 45 minutes away from England’s most significant game in 52 years as the voices of their supporters rose in an expectant roar.
Kieran Trippier was an unlikely third name on the list of those who have scored for England in a World Cup semi-final, joining Sir Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker with a glorious fifth-minute free-kick.
England’s 1-0 advantage did not reflect their superiority and Croatia, looking jaded in mind and body after knockout wins on penalties against Denmark and hosts Russia, were off the pace.
And then, just when England thought old fears could be dismissed and new chapters of success written, it happened again.
In the stadium that can still echo to the memories of the legendary middle-distance battles between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe at Moscow’s 1980 Olympics, England stumbled with the finishing tape in sight.
As England stalled it was Croatia who produced the powerful late surge to win through goals from Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic, showing strength almost beyond reason given their World Cup exertions.
The years of hurt will go on – and for all the optimism raised by England’s deeds in Russia over the last month, there will be a burning sense of missed opportunity that will take a long time to erase.
England can take much from these momentous last few weeks in Russia, where bonds have been forged behind the gates of their base in Repino, and Southgate’s squad have won many admirers with their modest and down-to-earth approach.
And yet there is no escaping a brutal question that will haunt England – when will they ever get a better chance to reach a World Cup final than the one that presented itself here in Russia?
England’s fans have taken their time to join the party here as their team conducted their campaign in Volgograd, Nizhny Novgorod, Kaliningrad, Moscow and then Samara.
But the sense that history was in the making brought them here to Moscow in force for this semi-final.
Private jets and charter planes were hired, the gloriously ornate corridors and giant escalators of this city’s famous Metro system were suddenly filled with familiar songs and England’s white shirts.
The rising hope only makes the dip of despair even more chastening.
England found themselves with a route to the final they could only have dreamed of after finishing second to Belgium in Group G.
While Belgium beat favourites Brazil only to be unseated by France in the semi-final, England’s opponents were Colombia, Sweden and Croatia – not easy but unquestionably more manageable.
England faltered at that third hurdle with a World Cup final beckoning – the good work undone by tired legs and perhaps a withdrawal of ambition to protect a precious lead.
Southgate and his players will rightly receive huge praise as they have done so much to restore England’s reputation and reconnect the public to their football team.
They will, however, have to reflect on a glorious opportunity to reach a World Cup final that has been wasted.
England can return home as heroes
When the inevitable pain subsides, and the belief that England blew their chance is placed in context, there is so much that can be taken from Russia.
Southgate can reflect on two years in which he has taken England from the embarrassment of Euro 2016 to their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years.
He has the total respect and loyalty of his squad. He has shown a sure touch in his handling of matters on and off the pitch and is a young, progressive coach.
Southgate leads a group of players whose conduct has won so many admirers here as England made their way to the last four. They have personality as players and as a team.
The aura around England could not be more different to the stale, disunited air that accompanied them away from France two years ago.
And on the field new stars were made.
Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford had an outstanding tournament, making a crucial penalty save in the shoot-out win against Colombia and performing with distinction against Sweden and Croatia.
Kieran Trippier has been a revelation as a defender and creator while Harry Maguire’s “man of the people” persona has gone hand in hand with rapid development as an England defender.
Harry Kane confirmed his reputation as a striker of high quality and John Stones looks to be developing into the class act so many have expected for so long.
And, despite the cruel ending, history was made.
England won their opening game at a major tournament for the first time since the 2006 World Cup. They won a knockout game for the first time since 2006. They won their first World Cup penalty shoot-out. They reached the World Cup semi-final for the first time since Italia 90.
Yes, the conclusion had a familiar ring – but there was enough that was fresh and hopeful for the future that England’s World Cup can be judged as a success.
One final fling
England must now rouse themselves for the finale of the third-placed play-off against Belgium in St Petersburg on Saturday.
This is often the World Cup’s unwanted game and there is every chance, certainly as far as England is concerned, this will be used to give opportunities to those who have been so loyal in the shadows in Russia. It could be a repeat of that under-strength group game that brought a Belgian victory.
It could also be the final act in the battle for the Golden Boot between Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku.
From Southgate’s perspective, though, a third-placed finish will add to the sense of achievement and pride and at least allow England to leave Russia on the high most will agree they have deserved.