England’s players left “their hearts and souls on the pitch” in their Women’s World Cup semi-final defeat by the USA, said boss Phil Neville.
The Lionesses lost 2-1 in Lyon, with Ellen White having a goal ruled out by the VAR for offside and captain Steph Houghton having a late penalty saved.
“I’ve told them no tears tonight,” said Neville. “I’m proud. They have touched the hearts of the nation.
“I couldn’t ask for more. We had the time of our lives.”
England must now shrug off the heartbreak of a third consecutive semi-final defeat in a major tournament to face either Sweden or the Netherlands in Saturday’s third-place play-off.
“We’ll have to allow 24 to 48 hours for this to sink in and for them to get over this disappointment,” added Neville, who said beforehand anything other than reaching the final would be a “failure”.
“Nothing I can say will make them feel better. Elite sport and being on top of the world means that on Saturday in Nice we have to produce a performance.
“It will tell me a lot about my players. I’ve moved on from this already and now I’m looking forward to Saturday’s game.”
The USA, who are the world’s top-ranked team and defending champions, led within 10 minutes from Christen Press’ header. Ellen White equalised for England with her sixth goal of the tournament, a tally matched by Alex Morgan when she put the USA back in front.
The real drama came after the break as White had a goal disallowed and was awarded a penalty, with both decisions made by the VAR – the latter after she was tripped by Becky Sauerbrunn.
Houghton’s spot-kick was saved by Alyssa Naeher, and Millie Bright was sent off late on for a second booking as the game drifted away from England.
“It’s about winning. I can’t say to my players, ‘unlucky’,” said Neville. “That’s white noise to them, because they wanted to win. That tells me that we’re closer than we’ve ever been. We came here to win and we didn’t do that.
“Football can be cruel. We have had a fantastic ride. When we got the penalty I turned to my bench and said ‘we are going to win it’ but it wasn’t to be.
“We knew it was going to be an open game and I felt they were starting to run out of steam in the second half.
“We only had a 10-minute period in the first half where we played with the belief that we talked about. We stood off them too much. We will learn massively from this.”
Neville accepted the offside decision against White was correct but said Bright should not have been shown her first yellow card and that he thought “the referee wasn’t really in control of the game”.
‘I was planning the next two years this afternoon’
Neville says he is already looking to the future as England look to win a major tournament for the first time. His contract runs until the end of Euro 2021, which is being held in England – with the final at Wembley.
Prior to that, the former Manchester United player will also take charge of the Great Britain team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – they qualified as a result of England’s run to the World Cup semi-finals.
“The minute the game finished my first thought was ‘how do we win on Saturday?’ and my second thought was ‘how do we win Olympic gold?'” he said.
“I was looking at them and that was my motivation. And then I looked at them and thought, ‘how do we win the Euros in 2021?’ I won’t wallow or go back to my room and feel sorry for myself.
“It’s now making us be better and getting the next two or three percent that will make us become the best team in the world. The aim is to become the best like America. We’ve still got a way to go. I won’t stop until I get there.
“I’ve started already. I was actually in my room this afternoon planning the next two years. It’s the way I work. It’s fast.”
I’ve let the team down – Houghton
Neville said “no blame should be attached to” captain Houghton, who has had a fantastic tournament but missed the penalty which ultimately cost them extra time.
“That was cruel,” said Neville. “She was outstanding in the game and she read everything.
“She has probably had the best season of her career. She had the courage to take the penalty and then keep playing football after. She is an amazing person and a world-class footballer.”
Nikita Parris had missed England’s previous two penalties in the tournament.
Manchester City defender Houghton said: “I got told today that I was on the penalties and I was confident because I had been scoring all week but I didn’t connect with it properly and the goalkeeper guessed the right way.
“I’ve let the team down but we’ve got to try to get a bronze medal now. I hold myself to high standards. I’m gutted and heartbroken. It’s not just about me but in those actions it is. We were so close but I’m proud of everyone because we gave it everything.
“I thought we were the better side in terms of how we played football, but ultimately, lapses in concentration cost us.”
England goalscorer White added: “The person stepping up takes a lot of courage and we’ll never put anything on Steph – she’s our leader.”
Goalkeeper Carly Telford said: “I have to give my heart to Steph. It was probably the biggest moment of her career and unfortunately she missed it. But stepping up was inspirational to me.”
‘I’m going to cry’
White’s goal put her top of the Golden Boot chart with six, but Morgan pulled level – and the American leads because of her three assists to White’s zero.
The game could have been different had White’s second-half strike – which was initially allowed – stood. The VAR offside decision was correct, albeit marginal.
The 30-year-old, who has joined Manchester City from Birmingham this summer, was in tears as she spoke to BBC Sport after the game.
“I’m going to cry,” she said. “I’m devastated not to get to the final.
“All I feel is pride for my team-mates. I’m proud to be English. USA had an amazing match and we just couldn’t match them. I wish them all the best in the final.
“We gave everything. In the first half we were sloppy. We got ourselves back into the game with the goal and it’s bitterly disappointing.
“We’ve got an unbelievable squad and we had so much belief that we’d get to that final but we just couldn’t do that on the day.”
‘I hope a lot of girls and boys pick up England shirt’
Telford, who was playing because of an injury to Karen Bardsley, said: “It was devastating, heartbreaking. It’s not how we thought the journey would end.
“I knew yesterday afternoon I would be playing. I had 24 hours to prepare but I felt like I had been preparing for the whole of my life. I would have preferred to be on the winning side.
“It was end-to-end but you want to be on the winning side no matter what. I hope there are a lot of young girls and boys picking up an England shirt.
“That’s an important message for us.”