Sport

AGONY REVISITED OP-ED

Dreams crushed but it’s back to the daily grind for heartbroken players

Dreams crushed but it’s back to the daily grind for heartbroken players
Harry Kane of England reacts after missing a penalty during the Fifa World Cup 2022 quarterfinal soccer match between England and France at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, 10 December 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Ronald Wittek)

For many footballers, the heartbreak of World Cup elimination will have to be quickly shelved as they return to domestic leagues without time to even pause and reflect.

When the final whistle went on Saturday evening, the England players looked like they had lost the World Cup final. Harry Kane had to be propped up by sympathetic teammates. Declan Rice almost had to be peeled off the grass. Harry Maguire struggled to get to his feet. It was a moment of immense pain and sadness for the England players, and understandably so.

None of the players would have wanted to say this in public but they must have felt that the France game was a final before the final. Win it and they would have one foot in next Sunday’s decider, and a winnable game at that.

And there must have been moments in the course of Saturday evening’s game — not least when Kane was preparing his second penalty against Hugo Lloris — that the England players might have imagined their own path from that point onwards.

Overcome France in extra time. Back up to the Al Bayt on Wednesday night for Morocco in the semis, with far more experience and confidence than they had facing Croatia at that stage in 2018. It would only be human at that point to think about what might follow after that.

But instead, England are flying home, with their dreams shattered. France will be playing Morocco instead and must be favourites now to be the first team since Brazil 60 years ago to retain this trophy.

Harry Kane, England, players

Harry Kane (left) of England reacts after failing to score his second penalty during the Fifa World Cup 2022 quarterfinal soccer match between England and France at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, 10 December 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Noushad Thekkayil)

It is the kind of disappointment that takes months to get over. Imagine for an instant if this was a normal World Cup in a normal year. Imagine that the France game took place not on December 10th in Qatar but on July 10th in Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Germany or almost literally anywhere else in the world.

Under those circumstances, the players would always be given three weeks of break before coming back for pre-season. They would get back up to speed, slightly slower than their teammates.

They may even miss the very start of the new season. And there would be a general understanding that they had been through a physically and emotionally draining process. It would take them a while to get back to their best.

(This is an area where you do not need to be an elite professional footballer to get a very vague sense of the feeling. Anyone who has ever put a huge amount of physical, mental and emotional effort into one particular project or event or cycle will be familiar with the feeling of being spent when it is over, of emptiness, of the struggle to go back to the well to dredge up some more motivation for your next challenge.

Now imagine all that but the event is the biggest show on the planet, and rather than ending in the best moment of your professional life, as you thought it would, it ended in pain and tears instead.)

Under these circumstances, we would generally make allowances for players taking a while to get back to their best. They might even take until Christmas to rediscover their rhythm and motivation and start playing their best football again.

Resumption of the league

Now think about this dynamic but transplanted into the current context. These England players are going to have to return quicker than normal to get ready for the resumption of the club football calendar. There is a full calendar of Premier League games spread from 26 to 28 December, with seven of those games on Boxing Day.


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Tottenham play the first game back at Brentford at 12.30pm on Boxing Day, meaning that if Spurs take kick-off then Kane, of all people, will be the player to get the Premier League campaign back underway.

If anyone deserves more special sympathy — not that he would want it — it is Kane, whose penalty miss makes him the public face of this defeat, in a way which was instantly apparent as soon as his kick sailed over the bar. He came to Qatar seeking the World Cup, his first major trophy, the England goals record, and perhaps a signature big-game moment in his career. He will wait elsewhere for all of that.

But there are even domestic games before Boxing Day with Manchester United playing in the League Cup on December 21, and Manchester City playing Liverpool in the same competition the following day.

It might be that managers spare their returning players for those matches but there is no question at all that teams will want to be at full strength for the league games straight after Christmas. And that means that the players will be put through the bizarre situation of playing Premier League football just 16 days after their desert heartbreak against France. The same applies to Portugal’s stars.

That leaves them hardly any time at all to go home, have a break, return to their clubs and start training for the resumption. Different clubs have slightly different approaches to this. Arsenal expect Aaron Ramsdale and Bukayo Saka back at the end of this week, giving them slightly more time to prepare for their Boxing Day game with West Ham.

Bukayo Saka of England

Bukayo Saka of England applauds fans as he leaves the pitch during the Fifa World Cup 2022 round of 16 soccer match between England and Senegal at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, 4 December 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Neil Hall)

Manchester City want John Stones, Kyle Walker, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Kalvin Phillips back in the middle of the following week, before the Liverpool game. West Ham United have given Declan Rice 10 days off. Spurs will give Kane between eight and 10 days before he has to come back.

Phil Foden, England, players

Phil Foden of England applauds fans as he leaves the pitch during the Fifa World Cup 2022 round of 16 soccer match between England and Senegal at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, 4 December 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Neil Hall)

So a short break then, and less than one week of training for most players before they have to play again in the league. On the physical side, the players should be fine. This is not pre-season — the players have been keeping in good condition during the course of the World Cup. Those who did not go to Qatar got at most two weeks off, and so did those whose teams were knocked out early. They should be able to get back up to speed soon enough.

Mental preparation

But mentally? Of course, it is unknowable really what emotions will be going through them over the next few weeks and when the grind of the club game comes back. But it is plausible to say that these players will struggle to summon up the same levels of motivation they had here in Qatar.

Maybe we will all be surprised and the players will be so desperate to prove a point they will come back better than ever, taking out some of their frustrations on the second half of the domestic season.

But right now it does not quite have that feeling. And if the England squad do struggle, they deserve a bit of leeway from fans, media, and even their own teammates and employers.

These England players are only human and they have gone through an experience which must in its own way be crushing. They have spent years building up to this point, making plans, conserving energy, keeping themselves fit, always with the Qatar World Cup in their minds.

Now that their World Cup is over they will have to find new targets, new energies, new sources of motivation, and that will take longer than it will take for the Premier League treadmill to resume. They deserve our patience. DM

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.

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