Mark Sampson: “England achieved things no one thought we could”

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EDMONTON, Alberta — England’s dreams for a World Cup title ended in sudden, crushing fashion on Wednesday night, but the side’s brash, young head coach was not about to let the manner in which they fizzled turn the month into a negative.

“No failure on our behalf,” Mark Sampson said. “This team have overachieved. They’ve achieved things that no one thought they could achieve.”

[ MORE: England inspired a nation ]

Indeed few expected the Three Lionesses to march all the way to the semifinal, and once they got there few expected them to hang with Japan. But aided by some well-meant pressure of the Japanese backs and smart but aggressive midfield play, there was England taking it to the world champions through 90 minutes and into stoppage time, where an own goal ultimately cost them a 2-1 result and a trip to the final.

“For me football is a game about which team can enforce their style on the game,” Sampson said. “So I have to give huge credit to my team. They made Japan play in a way that we wanted them to play. We controlled territory. We controlled the areas they wanted to have the ball and made sure they couldn’t.”

After the sides exchanged ominous penalties in the opening half, England nearly took charge of the match midway through the second half when they came close on three great chances. Toni Duggan hit the crossbar, Ellen White forced Ayumi Kaihori into a sprawling save, and Jill Scott had half the goal open on a free header but knocked it wide. And so it stayed 1-1 into stoppage time, when Laura Bassett reached out to clear a cross intended for Yuki Ogimi and inadvertently knocked it into her own net. Ninety minutes of fabulous soccer instantly turned to anguish for Bassett and her teammates.

“Football at this level is cruel,” Sampson said. “Moments change matches. And sometimes not always the best team wins.  And sometimes you don’t get what you deserve.”

[MORE: Sampson consoles Bassett  |  England go out proud  |  USA-Japan preview]

And so it is on to the third-place match for England, where they will have an opportunity to be the highest finishing European side if they can get through Germany. Sampson was steadfast that his team would gather itself and be ready for the match, which will take place Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on the same pitch where their dreams shattered in that one cruel moment.

“No problem at all,” the 32-year-old Sampson said about getting ready for Germany. “When they put the jersey on, when they’ve got the three lions on their chest, they feel 10 feet taller. They know the sense of responsibility.  Whatever they’ve got left in the tank, this team will give.  Whether that will be good enough, we’ll see.”

The talk of pride and achievement, however, did not blind the England manager to what a heartbreaking end it was on Wednesday. He said he believes Laura Bassett will return to England “a hero” for her excellent play throughout the World Cup, and he believes the team has raised the specter of women’s soccer in yet another country that has been slow to embrace it.  But in the short term, Sampson said, it was okay to let the disappointment wash over them.

“This team can’t be afraid to cry,” he said. “Nothing wrong with that at all. This team gave everything.  And when you give emotionally the amount this team gave this tournament, of course when there’s a huge disappointment like there was there’s going to be an outcry isn’t there.  I have no doubt this team is crying in that changing room, they’re consoling each other and they’re picking each other up.

“It will sink in soon what they achieved; how proud everyone is of their teammates and what they’ve done to put women’s football in our country in a place it’s never been before.”

That place is not quite world champions, but that’s just fine with their manager.

“For us, and for me, I can’t be any prouder.  And to talk about that is as good as winning the World Cup for us.  We came here and we felt we could go all the way. We’re the only ones in the world who thought it. But what we’ve achieved, what values this team epitomized, is as good as having a medal around your neck.”