Everyone would have bet the house on Harry Kane. The England captain had already scored an equalizer from the penalty spot, which took him level with Wayne Rooney on 53 goals for his country – the all-time record. Now, after Olivier Giroud tipped this world Cup Thriller back to France, Kane stood there again.
The penalty was conceded by Theo Hernandez. It was an extraordinary rush of blood from the full-back, which burst into the back of the England replacing Mason Mount as they chased a high ball that went through them both. An even greater was to come.
Kane had the absolute record within reach. More importantly, he stood up to rekindle England’s belief, paving the way for extra time – and, perhaps, a semi-final against Morocco. The pressure was excruciating. As he had done with the previous penalty, Kane took his time. And yet he collapsed, exploding over the crossbar in a moment that will forever live in his nightmares. It was the 84th minute. And that was pretty much it.
There would be no late sting and, for the umpteenth time, England had to ponder a story of bitter bad luck. It was meant to be the night it all came together against opposition from the world champions, with the mentality aligning with quality, the brutal lessons of the recent past helping England to a famous victory.
Gareth Southgate and his players hadn’t hidden the target here – and it went beyond just beating France. They were in Qatar to win the World Cup. “We haven’t come this far to come this far,” read a banner in the gymnasium at their training ground. Southgate had said England just had to ‘nail this type of play now’. They were excruciatingly short.
The focus will be on what Southgate does next. Will he continue in a fourth tournament campaign? The investigation will rage, as always. The manager had said before the game that the blame would end with him.
But it wasn’t a replay of the two defeats that burned the holes in his England CV – against Croatia in the semi-finals of the last World Cup and then Italy in the final of Euro 2020, when caution and lack of conviction undermined him and the team. It was no loss to chase him from his post.
England were equal to France here, if nothing else. They created chances. After another rocky start, they played on the front foot and aggressively. They largely overpowered Kylian Mbappé.
But when another substitute, Marcus Rashford, narrowly missed from a dying free-kick, England faced a missed chance. Kane looked broken full time. Everyone in the colors of England too.
England had not been behind in the tournament, had so far experienced no real setbacks. Southgate and his coaches had discussed how they would respond, what processes to follow. They had to put them into action after the first breakthrough of Aurélien Tchouaméni, which seemed announced. France quickly got into their overtaking rhythms, the excellent Antoine Griezmann in the lead. Giroud had nearly entered for a header in the 11th minute.
The breakthrough came when Griezmann dismissed Tchouaméni, who fired from distance with a vicious deflection. Jordan Pickford had plenty of time to see him. As he headed for his right corner, he pounced on it. He was out of breath but it wasn’t enough. Dayot Upamecano had started the move with a challenge on Bukayo Saka which England had insisted was a foul. The Brazilian referee, Wilton Sampaio, said no. He would be erratic throughout. Sometimes it looked like he was guessing.
England remained calm and Kane led the fight back, engaging in a few physical duels with Upamecano and winning them. Kane smartly rolled the center half after a pass from Saka into him and he had a chance from an angle on the right. Hugo Lloris, on the occasion of a record 143rd men’s selection for France, was cleverly taken out to block.
There was also the moment in the 25th minute when Kane pulled away from Upamecano again and headed for the right edge of the box. He felt his marker sweep his legs as he entered them but, after a VAR review, it appeared contact had been made slightly outside. Luke Shaw hit a free kick for Lloris before the goalkeeper collected a deflected effort from Kane from range.
England kept pushing after the break. Jude Bellingham blasted a shot from the edge of the area after a half-cleared corner that Lloris overturned – another good save – and Saka began to push his influence, all quicksilver movement down the right.
It was Saka who won the first penalty after a round trip with Bellingham, Tchouaméni stretching for the tackle but coming in too late. Saka was too fast. Mbappé had a rather showy word with Lloris as Kane prepared, trying to scare the England captain. It did not work.
Adrien Rabiot almost restored France’s lead straight away – Southgate frantically pointing to his temples – and there was the running race between Mbappé and Kyle Walker that everyone wanted to see. The French striker won, finally finding an additional report to push back Ousmane Dembélé, who could not react.
England had to take a chance and they threatened. Harry Maguire kissed the outside of a post with a header from Jordan Henderson’s free-kick; Saka was unable to convert from a Shaw cross. It was so close.
At the time, it looked like England were the likeliest mark of the next goal. France had other ideas. Giroud should have scored from a backhand header from Dembélé – Pickford saved well – then he found the net from Griezmann’s magnificent cross, coming between John Stones and Maguire to crash home. Kane had the chance to write a different story. There would only be misery.