Cruel on Kane but England should feel no disgrace at losing to world’s best

For a while, in those endless, scrolling micro-moments of gape, shock, acceptance and slowly gathering grief, the ball didn’t look like it was actually going to come down. There was always something weird about its angle, something anti-gravitational.

The night was suddenly quiet, the ball a lovely white thing out there all alone in all that space. Maybe it could just stay there. Maybe this thing could just stretch out and not actually happen, or not happen enough to matter.

But the ball really did go a very long way over the bar. As it began to fade into the colours behind the goal, as it became clear Harry Kane had not just hooked his penalty kick, although he did that too, but had lifted it horribly, massively, over the crossbar, it became clear we had another one. Like a process reverting to the mean, like a dog finding its way home by the stars, England had found a way in Al Khor to go out of the World Cup on penalties.

And Kane’s penalty will now stay up there, lost in the thin desert air. It will merge and mingle with the other penalties that never fell back to earth. Chris Waddle in Turin, the ball that simply vanished, which remains a mystery to this day, a case file in a cellar somewhere on Dartmoor. Or Gareth’s own prim, tender, upright sidefoot, so game and guileless.

It is, sad to say, a moment that may come to haunt Kane. Let’s not dress it up. It will come to haunt Kane because he loves this stuff, knows his strengths, his role, and because he feels it so deeply with England.

It was cruel because that penalty kick was a shot – at 2-1 down with five minutes to play – to drive this game into extra time. It was a goal to take Kane past the all-time England record. And it was cruel because Kane was really smart and effective here, leading England when they looked brittle and uncertain in the first half.

It was cruel for other reasons too, because this was not the same old story. Arsène Wenger had called this match the final before final in an interview with L’Équipe this week. Wenger says a lot of stuff. But he was perhaps close on this. Certainly, there is no disgrace, no necessary inquest, no requirement for shrieks of rage and betrayal after this narrow tournament exit to the best team in the world.

And yet we will of course have all of these, because the lines have narrowed on this thing, positions been taken. Sometimes looking at Southgate’s England is a bit like considering the ghostly Qatar 2022 mascot La’eeb, a being from the ether that comes from a realm that can, according to Fifa’s slightly desperate blurb, “mean whatever you want it to mean”. Such is the age of Southgate-ism. Look at the scores. Read the scrolls. Consider the history books. Note the uptick. It matters not. Nobody around here is changing their mind.

Which is a shame, because England were good in defeat, which is also a thing you can be. Southgate went with the team that is obviously the best team. It felt strong, a selection that said: this is what we have. No hiding. Now. Is it good enough? Early on the signs were, frankly, no.

With half an hour gone England had the dominant share of the ball but were already one down and looked like a team reaching up, less certain than France, wary on the ball, a callow imitation.

And the reality is France were winning this game before they even started winning it. They just looked stronger, more comfortable, smoother, able to make up the play. There is a rare balance of power and skill and basic football processing capacity in every one of these French players. It is a tribute to a system. And this is, after all, what World Cups are for, to test the merits, the purity of your doctrines.

France have been the best at this for 20 years now. This is a wonderful, generational team. England will keep striving to produce something like it.

France’s opening goal wasn’t anyone’s fault, and kind of was everyone’s fault. Jude Bellingham should have probably got closer to Aurélien Tchouaméni. But England did have their own flicker of light early in the second half.

And this was different too. England are supposed to fade, to become overrun in midfield. It didn’t happen here. They got stronger instead and found the way back.

Bukayo Saka, who was excellent in the second half, drew a leg and a trip and a first England penalty, awarded by the absurdly random, but always theatrically convinced Brazilian referee.

Kane waited, re-spotted the ball, then smashed it into the back of the net, loving that feel, the contact, a brilliantly angry piece of precision. Oh, Harry.

Oliver Giroud’s header from a masterpiece of a cross from Antoine Griezmann made it 2-1. Then came that late missed penalty. And for England it always felt too far.

There will be noise and upset and blame, but the fact remains it is hard to know what the manager could reasonably have done differently, beyond perhaps striding out in his suit trousers and slam dunking the ball into the net (why didn’t he? Does he believe enough?).

England were good here, as good as they could be. They will leave with a sense of having left a mark against the best, and of another chance lost to the skies.