Eyes red from weeping, legs heavy from chasing shadows, England's players trudged in solemn silence from their dressing room last night. There was, however, a brief break in their mournful procession to the team bus that said much for John Griffiths' Young Lionesses. It came as they passed by the Japan dressing room and, noticing the door slightly ajar, gave a laudable demonstration of sportsmanship.

"Well played!" shouted the first of English players, giving the thumbs-up to her Little Nadeshiko counterparts. "You were fantastic. Good luck!" echoed another, even forcing a smile as the Japanese responded in kind to this gracious gesture.

Other compliments and best wishes followed and, more impressive still, this was not a one-off. Dignified in defeat last night, England's had proved to be just as classy in victory in their previous match. On that occasion, having eked out a 2-1 win over Brazil to secure passage and send the South Americans home, the Young Lionesses' first instinct at the final whistle was not to celebrate, but to console their disconsolate rivals.

"It gives me so much pride to see and hear that kind of thing, and it's so important," their coach told FIFA.com. "We have a great group of girls here and they've shown a lot of class and humility throughout this tournament. When I saw the way they approached the Brazilian players at full-time the other day, I couldn't have been prouder. It was first-class sportsmanship and really fantastic to see. I must say, too, that Japan are in the same mould in that respect. I think our players responded to the Japanese players' behaviour as much as they did to the quality of football they produced.

"Japan deserve huge credit at this tournament because they're a good, honest team and they play unbelievable football. We weren't quite able to match them tonight but I do think we have shown that we're also a good, honest team. The girls have behaved really well on and off the field - they haven't got involved with referees, they've treated everyone with respect - and I know they've earned a few new admirers as a result."

Sights set on 2023
Griffiths, like his players, proved to be a model of magnanimity, quick to acknowledge Japan's superiority and reluctant to stress the absence of star forward Georgia Stanway. "You'll always miss good players, but I wouldn't make too much of an issue over that," he said, referring to the suspension that ruled out the team's top scorer. "We just lacked a bit physically - not in terms of stamina, but just in our mobility - against a team like Japan, and that's no disgrace. We're not the first and won't be the last to say that."

In qualifying unbeaten from a group that pitted them against Brazil and the Asian and African champions - Korea DPR and Nigeria - England had already exceeded most expectations. And with the goal at this tournament not glory, but moulding stars of the future, Griffiths had no hesitation in declaring the experience a resounding success.

"This is the first time we've been at this tournament for eight years and it's been massive for us," he said. "Up to and including this World Cup, some of our girls have accumulated over 30 caps in the last year to 18 months. The kind of experience that gives them in invaluable. The top-performing nations in women's football are always represented at these competitions and, for England, getting our young players exposed to these World Cups - and to top-level matches generally - is crucial.

"Winning is important because you need to win matches just to get to tournaments like this, and competing with the world's best at all levels is definitely where we want to be. But we've always developed this group with a focus on the senior team, and the 2023 World Cup in particular. The most important thing is that we see some of these girls as full Lionesses."

Plenty of Griffiths' players have shown signs of being well capable of making that jump. However many succeed, England fans can be assured not only of talented footballers, but exemplary ambassadors.