Defiant until the end and singing loudly to drown out local chants of “eliminados”, England fans demonstrated their love for a team which has let them down so consistently.
At the final whistle, Roy Hodgson and his players marched across to the corner of Estadio Mineirao housing their supporters, who saluted them passionately. It was an astonishing ovation for such serial underperformers. The fans’ loyalty is clearly unconditional. Tell me about it.
This is the city associated with England’s most infamous nadir, the 1-0 defeat by the United States in 1950. This is the team which has rewarded its fans with only five goals in their last eight World Cup matches.
This current World Cup is a tournament that will long be associated with one of the worst contributions by England. Yet the fans chanted their backing for the players and for Hodgson. Some even waved placards expressing their support for the manager.
Over in Natal, the Italian coach, Cesare Prandelli, was tendering his resignation amid the fallout of failing to qualify from Group D – and his side actually finished above Hodgson’s.
Back in Belo Horizonte, England fans were lauding a side whose record was two losses and this draw against Costa Rica, who are ranked 28th in the world and with a population of only 4.8 million people. They progressed.
They also contributed the most wonderful piece of skill in the match, a manoeuvre by Bryan Ruiz reminiscent of the great Zinedine Zidane in spiriting the ball around Jack Wilshere. And yet the thunderous applause at the end came from the England fans.
Maybe the stoics on the terraces were simply wanting to remind the world of their unbreakable link with those who wear the Three Lions, that even if the nation that gave the globe the game was not very good at playing it any more, those who watch and support remain utterly devoted.
Maybe the kind choristers also wanted to lift the players’ spirits. Maybe they also wanted to say farewell to the old guard. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard will decide whether to retire after a few weeks of reflection and consultation with family, friends and advisers. It would take a huge, heartbreaking decision to sever their links with a team they have served with such dedication but for no reward. They have 220 caps between them.
Gerrard is now one short of equalling David Beckham’s outfield record of 115. Can they leave the stage?
They have to. Their time is past, their race run. Gerrard is 34, Lampard 36. Maybe the fans sensed the end of an era. When Gerrard was warming up before coming on in the second half, England supporters stood and cheered his every stretch, his every stride down the line. They cheered when he led the players across at the end. They sang about Lampard, who then turned and walked slowly back towards the tunnel, pausing for an interview en route.
Behind him, the fans continued to sing “Super Frankie Lampard”. His eyes reddening, Lampard turned and waved. The fans just sang louder.
Maybe the extraordinary support was also because they wanted to show their faith in the next generation, praising some promising moments from the next generation, from Wilshere, 22, Ross Barkley, 20, and the 18-year-old Luke Shaw. These are the emerging talents whom Hodgson must build around as he looks towards Euro 2016.
The more experienced Wilshere was excellent; although he occasionally fell over, the midfielder’s attitude was bold and imaginative, gaining ground with the ball at his feet or slipping little passes through. This was a delight for his parents who had travelled all this way, attending all three matches, hoping to see him shine.
Barkley embarked on a couple of particularly impressive dribbles, steering the ball past Costa Ricans. Shaw put in a couple of good tackles, had one driving run and a decent shot that thudded into a Costa Rican barricade.
England had taken a while to get going in the first half, starting slowly but finishing strongly with Wilshere and Barkley demonstrating why they can help lead Hodgson’s side out of what he called this “realm of despair”. The pair put on a variety show in front of a watching royal. During the anthems many eyes, and camera-phones, were trained on Prince Harry. Two ladies in Brazil tops held up a banner saying, “Harry, Marry Me”, although it was not clear which of the two was doing the asking.
England, at least, wore white, although initially bore the distressed look of someone stood up at the altar. Chris Smalling sliced the ball down the line, then Wilshere fell awkwardly, rising slowly, rubbing his back. Gary Cahill skewed the ball out. Wilshere scooped the ball away. Lampard squandered possession.
“Always look on the bright side of life,” sang the England stoics, standing in the sunshine. When they failed to join in the Mexican wave, thousands of locals launched into “eliminados”, with a kindly press-box steward even writing down the word “eliminated” next to it. “We’re coming home,” came the chant from the highly vocal England fans. “England’s coming home.”
The team gradually began enjoying themselves, demonstrating their abilities. Ben Foster tipped a Celso Borges free-kick on to the bar. Then Barkley started to show. After 25 minutes, the Evertonian wriggled across the area, slipping the ball left to James Milner. Wrong-footing Cristian Gamboa, and not for the last time, the busy Milner crossed into the box for the tall Barkley to head down towards Daniel Sturridge. Óscar Duarte forced himself between the ball and Sturridge, who fell in a tangle of legs. It looked a penalty, but the Algerian referee, Djamel Haimoudi, waved play on.
Barkley almost capped this bright period with a goal before the break. Wilshere embarked on another run before finding Barkley, who dragged the ball away from Giancarlo González but placed his shot wide of Keylor Navas’s right-hand upright.
When the rampaging Barkley was cynically brought down by González, Lampard took responsibility for the free-kick but it was too timid and failed to beat the Costa Rican wall. England had a worrying moment when Phil Jones gifted the ball to Ruiz, who found Christian Bolaños but his 20-yard shot was well saved by Foster.
Sturridge then wasted a glorious chance after 65 minutes, a moment of huge frustration as the build-up play had been quick and precise, ripping Costa Rica’s back line to pieces. Milner passed to Sturridge, who transferred the ball inside to Wilshere. The return was elegantly delivered, first time with that dexterous left foot behind Costa Rica’s defence for Sturridge. It was a wonderful opportunity. Sturridge curled the ball past Navas, hoping for it to have enough fade to take it in at the far post but it went wide.
Navas then tipped over Wayne Rooney’s chip. So England ended with a draw.
So it was not a completely pointless stay in Brazil after all. The fans applauded as England left. Only 72 days until they host Norway at Wembley.