England defender Kyle Walker could not hide the pain of the crushing 2-1 defeat by Croatia after extra time denied them a place in the World Cup final but he could take solace from restoring pride in the national team and proving critics wrong.
“We’re absolutely gutted but I think we have to take it on the chin. I think we’ve shown character and desire, and I think we’ve brought the nation together,” Walker told reporters.
“We’ve brought English fans back in love with the English team.”
England’s players had been criticised for their recent tournament showings after a group stage exit in the last World Cup and being knocked out of Euro 2016 by tiny Iceland. Walker said that a sense of vindication was the biggest thing he would take away from Russia.
“It’s proving people wrong. There’s nothing better, when people are writing you off and saying you’re not fit to wear the shirt, slagging people off, it’s kind of saying: Well there you go – have that back at you,” he said.
“But we do it for ourselves as well. To represent your country, I can’t tell you how proud I am to share the dressing room with those players. You see the emotion there on people’s faces. We’ve all grown up watching England and to represent your country at a semi-final of a World Cup, there’s no better feeling.”
Expectations were low heading into the tournament, but that did not make it any easier to accept defeat by Croatia, who fought back with goals from Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic after Kieran Trippier’s free kick had given England an early lead.
“We’ve always had targets and we’ve achieved them but we wanted to go the whole way. To be in a semi-final – you can smell it. Tripps scoring the free kick, you kind of think it’s written in the stars for you to go to the final and hopefully do something special,” Walker added.
Nonetheless, he was touched by the reaction of England’s supporters who stayed behind to applaud the players off the pitch in the Luzhniki Stadium, in contrast to being booed and whistled after losing to Iceland.
“I was there in France, in the Iceland game, and it was completely different to that. For them to still be singing when we’re seeing friends and families, chanting our names and singing the manager’s name, is completely different,” he said.
“And I think we need to take full credit for that because we’ve changed that. I think the football has brought the nation together, people are going to pubs and celebrating, and that’s what football should be about. It’s enjoyable, we all love to play the game and fans love to support it. So it’s hats off to us. Unlucky we couldn’t bring it home for them, but hopefully there’s time in the future.”