Gareth Southgate 'remarkably proud' but 'I can't make the players feel better'

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Gareth Southgate has praised his young England side for surpassing expectations at the World Cup and re-establishing the national team’s credentials at major tournaments as his crestfallen players were left to digest a painful semi-final defeat to Croatia.

The manager had congratulated his opposite number, Zlatko Dalic, before seeking to comfort his own team out on the turf after the final whistle, with England’s hopes of an appearance in the final having been dashed by Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time winner. Southgate conceded the next 48 hours would be difficult as his squad come to terms with this missed opportunity before Saturday’s third-place play-off with Belgium.

Yet his overwhelming emotion was one of pride as the least experienced squad in Russia instigated a renaissance for the national team. “It’s impossible for me to say anything to the players to make them feel better at this moment,” he said.

“I’m conscious we’ve just lost a massive, massive game and I don’t want to be seen to be moving on too quickly. We shouldn’t overlook the opportunity we had and, at the moment, we all feel the pain of the defeat. Did we feel we would be in this position? Realistically, I don’t think any of us did. Go back 18 months and no one would have expected us to be in a semi-final of the World Cup.

England’s fans travelled in their droves to attend the World Cup semi-final.
England’s fans travelled in their droves to attend the World Cup semi-final. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

“But once here, we thought we could really win the game. We had an opportunity to do what only one team from our nation has ever done and get to a final. We’re still one of only three teams to get to a semi-final and the players and staff have to be proud of that, but when you get to this point and play as well as we did in the first half, you want to take those opportunities in life. At the moment we all feel the pain of the defeat. The dressing room is a very difficult place at the moment.

“But I’m remarkably proud of a group of players who have really advanced, and no one could have given any more. The way they’ve represented their country has been exemplary. They have to go through big-match experiences to become a team that can win. If you look at every other nation who has had success, they’ve got to semi-finals and not got across the line first time. They have to use the experience for their own benefit: not just tonight’s, but all the experiences over the last few weeks that will and have made them a stronger team.”

Southgate and his players had stood in front of a defiant and proud bank of supporters once the final whistle had sounded, the fans staying long after to bellow their appreciation and confirm the disconnect between team and following after failures at recent finals has been repaired.

“The reaction of the supporters at the end compared to two years ago tells the players that experiences with England can be positive, that the country are very proud of what they’ve done and the way they’ve played, and there will in time be lots of positives to take,” Southgate said.

England fans heartbroken after Croatia qualify for World Cup final – video

“It’s hard to put that into context now, and a bit too soon. You have to suffer the result a little bit. It’s too easy sometimes to move on quickly. But I’m hugely proud of what they’ve done. They have broken through a number of barriers over the last few weeks.

“For everybody in our party, I wanted them to create memories that are with them for ever. We’ve all had an incredible experience. For me, that’s what sport should be about. You give everything you have, build friendships within your team – in international football you give everything for your country and play in a way that you hope connects with the fans. The players have played and conducted themselves in a manner that has absolutely done that. If we’ve brought joy back home, which I know we have, then that’s been worthwhile.

“We’re hugely disappointed not to take the country one step further and give them everything they had hoped for. But we want to be a team who are hitting quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals. That’s what we aimed to do in the long term.

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“We’ve proved to ourselves and our country that is possible. Now we have a new benchmark, a new level of expectation, a new scenario. Many of these players have come of age on an international stage. I couldn’t be prouder with what they’ve done.”

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