WEMBLEY, England -- England's so-called golden generation sat dejected on the muddy field of Wembley Stadium, trying to drown out the celebratory cheers of Croatian fans.
The unthinkable had happened: The nation that invented modern soccer, which plays at a stadium that styles itself as "the venue of legends," had failed to qualify for next year's European Championship.
Needing only a tie at home in its final qualifier, England allowed two quick goals and then rallied in the second half, getting an equalizer off David Beckham's cross to Peter Crouch. But Mladen Petric scored in the 77th minute, giving Croatia a 3-2 victory on Wednesday night that prompted a new round of soul-searching for soccer's Mother Country.
"It will be a summer without seeing the flags out in the streets and seeing the atmosphere around England, and that's going to be devastating for the country," Beckham said. "We all know there are more important things than football in the world, but for us not to qualify for a competition it's a huge, huge thing."
Beckham was benched for the first half, one of the debatable decisions by coach Steve McClaren, then came for the second in Beckham's 99th game for England. McClaren also started goalkeeper Scott Carson -- in just his second international appearance -- in place of regular No. 1 Paul Robinson, who didn't even dress. Carson's blunder on his first touch led to Croatia's first goal.
"It's going to hurt for a long time," England midfielder Steven Gerrard said. "It will take a long time to recover from this. It's wrong to make excuses. That's the easy way out. As players we've got to take responsibility."
It's the first major tournament England will miss since the 1994 World Cup -- England last missed the Euros in 1984 -- and is likely to lead to the departure of McClaren, much criticized since he replaced Sven-Goran Eriksson. Graham Taylor quit six days after England failed to qualify for the '94 World Cup.
"No, I'm not stepping down," said McClaren, who made a quick exit after the final whistle. "Ultimately I take responsibility and I accept that. It is my job to get us qualified and I failed to do that. I don't want to discuss my future."
Beckham, too, hopes to be around for the 2010 World Cup. McClaren dropped him last year but then brought back the 32-year-old midfielder. Wednesday's game was the first time since the 1998 World Cup that Beckham was dressed and available for an England game but did not start.
"I'm not retiring," said Beckham, willing to keep commuting to the national team from the Los Angeles Galaxy. "I have always said that from the moment I was taken out of the team and the moment I came back into the team. I'm not stepping down."
Beckham, Gerrard, Michael Owen, John Terry, Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard are all described as the best players of their generation. But they fell short over a 15-month qualifying campaign.
"I read in your papers that no Croatian player would start on your team," Croatia coach Slaven Bilic said to the English reporters. "I mean, seriously, wake up."
In a game played simultaneously, Russia beat Andorra 1-0 to climb one point ahead of England and finish second to Croatia in Group E.
Niko Kranjcar scored in the eighth minute on a 25-yard shot that dipped, bounced off the field and went into the net off Carson's arm. Ivica Olic made it 2-0, beating an offside trap in the 14th.
But Frank Lampard Lampard converted a penalty kick in the 56th after Jermaine Defoe was fouled by Josip Simunic in the penalty area and Beckham's cross in the 65th set up the equalizer from Crouch, who chested the ball and volleyed it past goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.
Petric broke the tie in the 77th, eight minutes after he entered the match, beating Carson with a 30-meter shot to the far corner.
England, eliminated in the quarterfinals of last year's World Cup, was missing Rooney, Owen and Terry because of injuries, and they watched from the team dugout. They came on the field after the final whistle to support their teammates in front of 88,091 fans.
Beckham, Lampard and Gerrard, all visibly upset, stayed for a while on the field, acknowledging the crowd as Croatia's players celebrated in front of their cheering fans.
"It's not just Steve, it's the players," Terry said. "We are the ones going out there and not getting the right results. It's not just up to Steve to take it all on his shoulders; as an England team we all take the big responsibility."
England, whose qualification chances dwindled when it wasted a second-half lead and lost at Russia last month, had been given new hope when Russia was beaten at Israel on Saturday. But playing against a team that already clinched a berth in the 16-nation field, England failed to take advantage.
"We've felt we'd been given that second chance," Beckham said, "and you have to take them when they're given to you and it was handed to us on a plate like that."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press