Ecstasy frozen in time

11th July 2018 started as an ordinary day at the height of the English summer. Close but barely sunlit, morning eased into afternoon and distraction took hold of a nation.

A continent away Gareth Southgate’s England team were being readied for their sixth match at FIFA World Cup 2018, their first major tournament semi-final for 22 years and the first in a World Cup for six more.

It was a rare unifying phenomenon in a divided nation. England supporters were joined in feverish anticipation by millions more.

Perhaps more than any England team since 1996 their backing was deserved.

Gone was a generation of players who disappointed supporters and reviled outsiders, wrongly identified symbols of football’s perceived flaws and excesses.

In their stead, something special. Southgate’s squad thrived on diversity and yet won over a public in the midst of a schism that had multiculturalism at its heart.

As England the nation split over every issue from membership of the European Union and climate change to political correctness and veganism, England the football team – representative, vibrant and fiercely proud of it – proved an unlikely oasis.

Funny thing, football.

England’s progress through the World Cup somehow combined ease and exorcism.

A stoppage time winner against Tunisia broke a habit of starting tournaments poorly. The demolition of Panama was a welcome surprise after decades of labouring against limited opposition.

They lost to Belgium in a strange third match played between second-string sides, a result that dropped England into what had been branded The Easy Side of the Draw despite a daunting Second Round date with Colombia.

England supporters worn by history knew that a win couldn’t be taken for granted even as the casual fans celebrated a bracket threatening no Uruguay, Portugal, France, Argentina, Brazil or Mexico until the final.

The collective imagination was ignited and the manner of England’s win in that Round of 16 tie only served to fan the flames.

England winning a World Cup penalty shoot-out was truly cathartic. We cried tears of joy as countless ghosts were purged by one horribly scuffed penalty kick and a single iron fist.

That England won that night, that way, might make it the obvious candidate to be the peak of their World Cup. Obvious, but wrong.

The real summit was reached not in victory, but in defeat.

For all the testimony before and since that Zlatko Dalić’s Croatia were motivated by English arrogance it was in fact their ability to identify and exploit England’s weaknesses that earned their place in the World Cup final.

Croatia were smarter, more experienced, more technical than England. They weren’t beneficiaries in common of a favourable side of the draw; they were the reason it wasn’t really favourable in the first place.

But for one tense, terrifying, captivating hour England were in the lead in a World Cup semi-final.

What followed – England’s wasted chances, Croatia’s equaliser and extra time winner – destroyed the potency of England’s opening goal. They’ll never diminish the moment.

It’s a mark of their affection for Southgate’s 2018 squad that England supporters are able to remember Kieran Trippier’s goal that night for what it was, what it meant then and there, when they could just as easily forget it for what it wasn’t.

The head hadn’t yet settled on the Boxpark beers when England struck.

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They won an early free kick and Trippier stood over the ball, three yards outside the D and slightly right of centre. Ashley Young loitered without intent.

Jesse Lingard and Harry Maguire extended the Croatian wall on the penalty spot, dwarfing Luka Modrić. At the other end of the six-man barrier were Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli, ready to open the gap that Trippier didn’t need.

His strike was nerveless, his technique unwavering. The ball curled over the top of the wall, far beyond the desperate left hand of goalkeeper Danijel Subašić and into the top corner.

It was a goal of practised precision and flawless visual poetry. The arc of the ball. The despairing, futile reach of Subašić. The camera angles. Every aspect combined to immortalise Croatia 0-1 England.

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Trippier watched carefully, just to make sure, and then tore away, jubilant, flanked by Young. Lingard made a late attempt to reach the knee-sliding scorer before him, only for captain Harry Kane to appear from nowhere to gazump them both.

The ecstasy of that goal is frozen in time. The national team might never see another pile-on like it and that explosion of emotion was replicated in the houses, streets and beer-misty fan parks of home.

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That feeling hasn’t yet been forgotten and it never should be.

It was a wonderful goal, an impressive feat of character in its full context, and it meant that England were, at least in that split-second between the ball crossing the line and hitting the net, able to dream of a World Cup final.

When Mario Mandžukić tucked in the most Mandžukić of winning goals deep into extra time the heartbreak was real.

So too was the unbelievable high of Trippier’s goal. Defeat be damned.

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A broken nation roars as one to salute an all-time great England moment. An adidas Telstar 18 ball bends eternally towards a net it will never reach.

Pure. Perfect. Forever unspoiled by the nuisance of its own future.

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Chris Nee