Jamie Carragher: No guarantee England will ever get a better chance - a golden opportunity has been lost
England's 2018 World Cup campaign must be recognised as the greatest of all our missed opportunities. Our biggest regret after previous semi-final losses was that we pushed great German sides to the brink, beaten on penalties after even games. When you reach a semi-final you expect to face a superpower like Germany, Brazil or Spain.
This time we must acknowledge the extraordinary achievement of Croatia, a country with a population of four million, with none of our wealth or resource. They assembled a group of players excelling for Europe's biggest clubs. They are good, but beatable. Ultimately they reminded us how far we must still go on the international stage.
This was England's best chance since 1966 to reach a World Cup final. These players and this manager may never get so close again. I understand the will and necessity of the country to present the last four weeks as the start of a new era for the national team. The positivity generated by England's progress means we will fondly remember this World Cup.
But one of football's great myths is the idea that the agony of defeat, particularly in latter stages of major tournaments, will be the catalyst for future success. There is no guarantee of momentum into the next tournament. In England's case, there is no historic precedent for it. The evidence suggests the opposite. England did not build on their semi-final appearance in Italia 90, failing to qualify for the next World Cup.
There was no progression after Euro 96. England failed to get beyond the group stage in Euro 2000. As in club football, these moments must be judged coldly in isolation and on merit. Every England player and Gareth Southgate knows it is about here and now. The words of consolation suggesting foundations are laid for future semi-finals and finals sugar-coat a harsher reality.
I do not say this to diminish the achievement in Russia, which was beyond expectations. We were excited because it was so much better than the last 22 years.
We still need to ensure broader assessments are not clouded by euphoria gripping the country in the build-up to the semi-final.
Our standing below the elite nations has not altered over four weeks. As a national team, we remain behind Germany, Spain, Brazil and, obviously, France. Many superior national teams endured an undistinguished tournament, but there is no doubt in my mind they will return strong.
For some of them, this competition was an anomaly. For us, the abnormality was getting so far. We cannot confidently predict this will be a trend. Three semi-finals in 28 years are not enough. I cannot sit here and confidently argue we will go deep into the 2020 European Championships or 2022 World Cup.
I wrote before the competition that my fear whenever England play in a major tournament is they will lose against technically superior teams. So it proved, with Croatia becoming much stronger as the game went on.
It did not matter who England beat to get to the semi-final as long as they got there, but we cannot ignore the draw opened up and we did not face our sternest test until the last four. The flaws we sensed in the previous five games - most pertinently the lack of creativity linking midfield and attack - were glaringly obvious.
That is the difference at the highest level. It is not easily remedied. Where will Southgate find a playmaker over the next two, four or even six years?
Can we find our Luka Modric? I consider him the best central midfielder in the world. Where there is hope is Southgate recognised the mistakes of the past heading into tournaments and corrected them. He will need to be similarly astute at identifying the errors after 1990 and 1996. One positive difference is England will not change manager - as they did after their last semi-finals. Bobby Robson and Terry Venables were unable to continue.
We can also take encouragement from England's recent success at youth levels. That will yield long-term reward if players shining in the under-21s, under-19s and under-17s get Premier League experience. The fact only 33 per cent of Premier League players are English is deeply worrying.
That depressing statistic can be reversed if club managers trust English players. We can get that number closer to 50 per cent by 2022. There was a buzz post-1990 leading to a significant rise in the quality of our domestic football.
I hope there is a knock-on effect and leading coaches have belief English players can play at the highest level. Three of England's best - Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier - started at lower levels.
There are plenty of teenagers carrying high expectations. Phil Foden at Manchester City and Mason Mount at Chelsea are exciting players who - if they develop at senior level as they have in the youth ranks - will give England the missing creative link in midfield. They have a long way to go before they can absorb that kind of responsibility and pressure but Southgate will be desperate for Foden and Mount to get regular opportunities at their clubs.
Mount just enjoyed an impressive loan spell at Vitesse Arnhem, scoring 14 goals in 39 appearances. More young English players must follow this example rather than waste time wondering when or if it will happen at big clubs that can afford to be more patient than the players.
The England manager has excelled in identifying those who fit his system. I don't believe Maguire would have been a first choice under Southgate's predecessors. It would have been easy to select Chelsea's Gary Cahill ahead of him. That must encourage many English players you do not have to play for one of the "big six" to get into the England team.
The FA must also learn from the past. A highlight of the past four weeks has been the unity of England fans. Southgate's team has given the national team back to the people. Now the FA must do likewise. Supporters from every region want to bond with the players. When the team and fans feed off positivity, they get the best from each other. We can thrive.
We wanted hope from this competition. We got it. It is imperative the FA tap into this and take the national team beyond Wembley, not only for friendlies, but qualifiers. When the mood swings towards optimism, you must take advantage. The alternative is the summer of 2018 will be part of the same nostalgia trip as 1990 and 1996.
Another story ending with the question: "What if?" No more than a rare outbreak of sunshine around England's national team. (© Daily Telegraph, London)