“It’s like the Olympics again.” There was a feeling of high optimism in Hyde Park, where new fans mixed with the more established, as kick-off approached. By the time the night was over, that was replaced by silent resignation.
As Hyde Park filled up early on Wednesday evening, the Lightning Seeds had got the crowd going with a live rendition of Three Lions on the main stage. At that point, “it was coming home”.
Will Prior, one of the tens of thousands of fans who had made his way to central London for the match, didn’t think England would get the job done in normal time. After a 0-0 draw, he saw them doing it on penalties. “I can’t handle penalties,” says Charlotte Garside, 29. She didn’t have to. That was almost more cruel.
Neither was really old enough to remember England’s last World Cup semi-final appearance. Each admitted they wouldn’t have been interested if they were. They were some of those people in the country who had been energised by England’s performance so far.
“I just think everybody is here for the atmosphere. People normally have no hope … we’ve got fresh blood this year,” said Garside. Her prediction had been: 3-2 after extra time, following a 2-2 draw.
Max Kennedy, 21, was not even old enough to remember England’s more recent semi-final appearance – in the 1996 European Championship – the first time it was said to be coming home. He said the festival-like atmosphere was far better than watching the match in a packed pub. “You can tell everyone is just on it.”
Eamonn Power and his friends could remember 1990. They said they did not see much optimism on the streets pre-match. “You don’t see so many England flags,” said David Dickson. That was, they said, until they got into Hyde Park, where they watched the match with 50,000 similarly optimistic fans.
The fact Kennedy had never seen England get this far perhaps made his pre-match optimism more surprising: 3-1 England, he said just before kick-off. Kane to score two. Within 10 minutes, England would be one up and thousands of plastic pint glasses would be emptied into the evening air – quite a feat at £6 a pint.
Everything seemed to looking up at that point. The sun was shining and England were heading into the World Cup final to play France. Soon after half-time, however, the smiling faces were creased with worry. Croatia had equalised and the sun had sunk behind the trees. Soon, it would be gone altogether.