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Last night, England went out of the 2018 World Cup after a semi-final defeat to Croatia. A game of two very different halves before extra time, England possibly could've wrapped the game up and been two or three nil up in 30 minutes. There could've even been a Croatian red card. Sadly, it wasn't to be.
Croatia dominated most of the second half, as England looked as if their game plan had gone out the window. Ineffective substitutes and a general tiredness saw the Three Lions' World Cup dreams dashed at the penultimate moment.
Despite being absolutely gutted for the lads, I could not be more proud of the team and the manager for what they have achieved in Russia this summer. After the embarrassment of being knocked out of the 2016 Euros by Iceland, and the subsequent (and mercifully, short) appointment of Sam Allardyce, faith in the English football team was at a national low.
When Gareth Southgate was put in charge, a lot of people seemed very skeptical, while others came across quietly optimistic. He was a former England player with little international managerial experience, his only previous gig being the England Under-21 team.
It seemed clear early on he felt ready to take on the challenge and prove his doubters wrong, and boy, prove them wrong he did. I remember very clearly when the World Cup squad was announced how between a lot of my friends and family we felt there were some... interesting decisions, but on the whole, it was a young, hungry squad who we hoped, as a nation, would be desperate to prove themselves on the international stage.
If you'd told me before the tournament we'd be getting to the semi-finals, I'd have openly laughed in your face. What Gareth Southgate has managed to do with the squad at his disposable in utterly fantastic. Not only did he manage to achieve more than the fans ever thought he could, but he also brought the nation together.
Football is more than "just a game." It always has been something more. It brings people together from all walks of life. It offers an escape from day-to-day life and, when played at its best, it becomes a sporting spectacle unlike any other.
Football is more than "just a game." The Christmas truce of 1914 brought Allied and Axis forces together over No Man's Land to exchange pleasantries, sing carols, and have a kickaround match together—two sides, both weary from war and killing each other, brought together by The Beautiful Game.
For the past few years in the UK, especially after the Brexit Referendum, it's been a political minefield. Harsh divides have split the people of this once great country. It is still shit. Things still need fixing, and if we really are going to leave the EU, we need to get a bloody deal sorted.
But, for the past month, men, women and children from all corners of the country united to watch the England boys do their country proud. Shoulder to shoulder crammed into pubs, trawling through city centres to view the next game on park screens, we all cheered in one voice and as one family. Whether you are black, white, or anything in between. Whether you voted leave or remain, we all sang "Three Lions" every time we scored and it was a sight to behold.
So, maybe football isn't coming home after all. A lot of other countries failed to grasp the idea that we started out utilising this classic song somewhat ironically. We didn't think we'd progress far, so might as well enjoy it. Then we started exceeding our expectations, and that gave away to genuine hope, and passion for our squad.
You may laugh at our failure. It was gut-wrenching and incredibly painful to accept, but that's football. The Beautiful Game. Anything can happen inside that 90 minutes (and as we learned last night, just outside of it too). It has the power to unite those who wouldn't regularly be together. It gives you a reason to catch up with old friends and cheer on your favourite players while they give everything they've got to do their country proud.
Football isn't coming home, but football made us feel like we were at home again. I know we won't be able to keep this level of unity going for long but, for a moment, the country felt like it could truly become one again.
It may be called The Beautiful Game, but it will always be more than that.
Bravo to the England Football Team, and to the magnificent Gareth Southgate. You've blown us all away and made us believe in football again.
(It's coming home in 2022.)