When England lost on penalties to West Germany in the Italia 90 semi-final, a game that in myriad ways defined the notion of the heartbreaking defeat, Des Lynam signed off the BBC's coverage with an unusual, improvised and endearingly naive plea to Joe Bloggs's better nature. "There it is," he said. "England are out, but they played with pride tonight, and if you're gonna have a drink at the end of the evening, perhaps you should do with it pride and not aggression. It's been a good night for English football."

Lynam's ideal of national pride and positive patriotism was not entirely replicated by Gary Lineker on Sunday night – "at least we can't lose to the Germans" – but while nobody of sound mind would seriously compare the England vintages of 1990 and 2012, there was a similar sense of relative peace at their departure from the tournament.

The two teams had shared, if only loosely, a certain nobility and honour in defeat. Roy Hodgson's England, for all their considerable limitations, showed qualities that can sound patronising but should not: discipline, humility and endeavour. Throughout the tournament, for richer and poorer, their humanity was apparent, and there was none of the tedious hubris and entitlement of the Golden Generation. For the first time in at least a decade, England at a major tournament were more than the sum of their parts.

The cliche of England losing on penalties thus had a new twist. In most cases, from 1990 to 2006, there was regret and a legitimate if not always persuasive argument that England deserved to go through. This time only the most intractable nationalist would suggest that justice was not done.

The night was always going to end, one way or another, with a John Cleese quote. Had England gone through to a semi-final with Germany, their fans would have been told not to mention the war. Instead they were left to reflect on his line from Clockwise: "It's not the despair, Laura, I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand."

Yet England were not supposed to have hope in this tournament. This time it was supposed to be different. Not because England could win, but because losing wouldn't hurt. After the victory against Sweden, however, the nation started to feel the irresistible and illogical twitch of belief. And then they started to kneel, once more, unto the altar of pain.

For all that, it was logically a cautious belief. So England's exit from these finals was accompanied by an unusually benevolent mood. In modern times, England going out of a major tournament has become a ritual, almost as compelling as the match itself. What song will the BBC choose for their closing montage? And more importantly, whose fault will it be? Missed penalties by Stuart Pearce, Chris Waddle and Gareth Southgate were absolved on a human level; their reward was a Pizza Hut advert and a wry smile from those who met them in public.

Since then, however, an England exit always seemed to require a scapegoat. It started with David Beckham, who was sent off for flicking a boot at Diego Simeone. Then there was Phil Neville and, to a lesser extent, David Seaman in 2002. After that, the nation instinctively realised it would be easier to blame foreigners. Urs Meier, the Swiss referee, had his contact details published on the front of The Sun after disallowing Sol Campbell's header during England's defeat to Portugal at Euro 2004. Two years later, Cristiano Ronaldo was harassed for winking while Wayne Rooney largely escaped criticism for stamping on another man's discreet area. In 2010, Fabio Capello took the blame for England's abysmal World Cup campaign.

This time there will not, or at least should not, be significant recriminations. It is fair to assume that the Ashleys will not be appearing in an advert soon. In modern times it has almost been easier to remember who scored penalties for England in shoot-outs than who did not. By losing on penalties in the quarter‑finals, England have overachieved. There is a justified if cautious pride at what they have done under a likeable manager. That said, they should be careful. Limited, humble, honest, defeated. Apart from getting through the group stage, the new England could pass for the old Scotland.