THEY swept out of Belo Horizonte towards the airport late yesterday afternoon, but it is not the knockout stage of this fabulous World Cup where England are bound. Instead, Luton airport is the rather less glamorous destination that awaits.
Any surviving delusions of grandeur harboured by players who have endured another chastening major tournament will surely have been quietly discarded en route.
“The dream of one team, the heartbeat of millions” is the portentous banner under which they have travelled, writ large along the side of the luxury team bus that transported the England team on shorter journeys in Brazil. It is not just a group of crestfallen footballers who have checked out. The English FA party numbered over 70, and included dieticians, a psychiatrist and even a turf specialist.
To what effect? It is now possible to assess an enterprise that began in such sanguine fashion, to try to account for the millions of pounds spent for the grand return of two goals.
This team is arriving home with more baggage than anyone thought possible, cast as the jesters in a tournament of colour and zest. Here, England came up with an appropriate way to place a full stop at the end of a miserable campaign by grinding out a 0-0 draw with Costa Rica.
“Eliminados!” chanted the non-England fans, a group which seemed to account for nearly 70 per cent of the Mineirano stadium. It was all seemingly good-natured.
However, by the time the English players, along with manager Roy Hodgson, went to salute the supporters at the end, a line of riot police had formed a barrier between England fans and those wearing mostly Brazil shirts behind the goal, following an outbreak of trouble. Perhaps this was going to go from bad to worse for England. Order was restored, and Hodgson, pictured, and his players were able to lap up the applause of the travelling fans.
And yes, you read that correctly. It was an extraordinary scene; players culpable for such a poor World Cup being saluted by supporters. Hodgson later admitted the reception was something their performances had not deserved.
These fans appeared to be prepared to forgive and forget as they sizzled in a corner of the stadium that turned out to be a senses-frazzling sun-trap.
There were goal-scoring chances, penalty claims and mild excitement at times but it was all academic as far as England were concerned. There was an almost testimonial feel to the occasion, particularly when Steven Gerrard made what might be his last international appearance with 15 minutes left.
England have retreated from here in shame once before, of course. Back in 1950, Belo Horizonte was a small mining town surrounded by hills. It is bigger now, though the hills are still there. The United States, who vanquished England at the last World Cup to be held in Brazil, have developed with the times as well; they are still in there fighting at this tournament. England might have lasted 24 hours longer than the world champions, but they could not emulate them in at least bowing out with a win.
It is remarkable that England were reduced to treating a World Cup fixture in a final group game at a World Cup in football’s spiritual homeland as a friendly. But here we were, watching Frank Lampard chaperon a side full of players we are being encouraged, nay browbeaten, into believing will be England’s future.
This was again fairly uninspiring by England. Costa Rica did what they had to do to claim the point that means they go forward to the last 16 stage as winners of Group D, the supposed Group of Death. England are bottom, deservedly so.
This was far from the white-heat intensity that we normally associate with last group games. A beach ball was being flicked around one section of the ground. It was important to remember that Costa Rica do not deserve to be touched by England’s gloom – they of course had everything to play for as they chased top spot in a group they were expected by many to prop up. Their fans contributed hugely to the colour of the occasion.
The majority of England fans appeared to be going home in good humour as well. Perhaps they were buoyed by this glimpse of the future, with players such as Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana handed starts.
The Liverpool influence was severely diminished – down to one from five, with Daniel Sturridge the only player from Anfield retained after Thursday’s 2-1 defeat by Uruguay.
The striker was not at his best yesterday and wasted several chances. An effective player for Liverpool, he is one who has found the World Cup to be altogether tougher testing ground than the English Premier League.
There were moments, most of them provided by the likes of Barkley and substitute Raheem Sterling, when it was possible to believe there might be something to hold on to for the embattled Hodgson and the England fans. But then you remembered how many times this has been said before.