France leave England wondering what might have been

football10 December 2022 22:20| © Reuters
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Jack Grealish © Gallo Images

The French cockerel crowed long and hard into the night on Saturday after France beat age-old rivals England 2-1 to reach the World Cup semifinals and send their neighbours home.

On a patch of verdant grass incongruously sat in the middle of a parched Qatari desert, the reigning champions repelled England's assaults and broke English hearts.

In a closely fought match of millimetres it was ironic that the result was ultimately determined by a wild and woefully mis-hit penalty, blasted into the stand by England’s usually reliable goal machine Harry Kane.

Having earlier smashed an unstoppable spot kick past Hugo Lloris, barely a soul in the cavernous Al Bayt Stadium would have expected the striker to miss his chance to level the match at 2-2 and become England’s record goalscorer.

Such is sport, though, and instead of leading the fightback, the man the English media call 'King Harry' left the pitch disconsolate.

“It’s a game of fine margins,” said England coach Gareth Southgate, who missed the decisive penalty in a shootout against Germany in the semifinals at Euro 96.

"For me, we win and lose as a team and we've let a couple of goals in and missed a few chances. Harry has been incredible for us, so reliable in those sorts of situations. We wouldn't be here, but for the number of goals he scored for us.”

Such drama was perhaps predictable in this first-ever World Cup knockout clash between two nations with such a long history of rivalry.


Before the kick-off, the scene for high drama was set. Smoke had hung in the air following a display of pre-match fireworks.

If this sporting clash was, as English essayist, novelist and journalist George Orwell said, “war minus the shooting” both sets of players were more than ready, and set about each other with little restraint.

Early exchanges were robust and, fittingly, the French took the lead while England were complaining about a foul not given on Bukayo Saka. As the English were waving arms and remonstrating, Antoine Griezmann rolled a perfectly weighted ball to Aurelien Tchouameni.

A game of millimetres. A millimetre either way and Tchouameni’s shot would have hit Jude Bellingham, instead of flying perfectly through the space between his stretched legs.

A millimetre either way and Jordan Pickford would have pushed it round the post instead of picking it out of the net.

From the outset France defenders Jules Kounde and Raphael Varane were physical in the tackle, while Theo Hernandez was eventually booked for his repeated hauling down of England’s attacking threat, mainly Saka who had got the better of him down the right wing early on.

Not to be outdone, lightweight striker Griezmann earned himself a first-half booking for repeatedly running into England’s players.

Fittingly, then, England found their way back into the match when Saka was tripped by Tchouameni and Kane smashed the resulting penalty high beyond his Tottenham Hotspur teammate Hugo Lloris to draw level with Wayne Rooney as England’s record scorer on 53 goals.

Cue that man Griezmann and another perfect assist, this time lining a cross straight onto Olivier Giroud’s head for the forward's fourth goal of the tournament to restore France's lead.

Again, though, French indiscipline gave England a lifeline when Hernandez flattened Mason Mount. But, with all the stadium braced for the game to become all-square, Kane missed from the spot – not by millimetres this time but by much, much more.

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