BENGALURU: July 30, 1966 — a date English football aficionados will remember forever. A monstrous crowd of 96,924 at the Wembley stadium remained witness to a historic feat. If the 1966 World Cup belonged to Sir Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst stole the limelight in the final scoring a hat-trick as England beat West Germany 4-2 to lift the FIFA World Cup title for the first time. They would have expected the Three Lions to repeat that feat at least once over the next half-a-century, but their fans have been left clinging on to the nostalgia of 1966.
18, 932 days later, England are still waiting for a final appearance. There are just days left for yet another World Cup and England are a topic of discussion again, especially after their youth sides clinched three out of four available titles last year, including the U-17 and U-20 World Cups and the U-19 European Championships. But can their senior side, led by Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling, win them a second World Cup? Former Irish World Cupper Terry Phelan, who spent most of his playing career in the English Premier League, says no. “This year? No chance. They can cross the group stage and maybe, maybe the Round-of-16 but not beyond that,” he says.
Phelan's pessimism is understandable when taking into account England's record in the last few World Cups and Euros. They haven’t achieved anything significant over the last three decades. A fourth-place finish in the 1990 World Cup and reaching the semifinals of the 1996 Euro have been their best thus far. Apart from that, it has been a story of hits and misses. Phelan points towards the absence of a robust youth system like Germany or Spain, where the youth sides have been regularly feeding the senior national team. Such a phenomenon has been missing in England.
“You look at Germany and how they have kept the supply chain moving. A German side consisting mostly of youth players won the Confederations Cup. That’s the system,” Phelan said. “What England have done in the youth tournaments is because of Gareth Southgate (present England coach). He is trying to model Germany. It’s very important but can England do that?”
The question Phelan raises is an important one. To achieve what Germany and Spain have, the FA needs the clubs to work with it. “The model we have is a dual approach from the national team and the clubs. Youth development which includes players’ load, recovery from injury, education and what our national team coach wants, is taken care of by club coaches. We are always in complete sync,” Germany U-17 coach Cristian Wuck had described their youth development system during the U-17 World Cup.
The system has now been implemented even in Iran but England are far away from that. In a fiercely competitive Premier League, it is difficult for young players to earn the trust of their coaches. Even the players who go out on loan in the English second or third tier struggle for playing time.
“It’s not just about chances. It’s about the pressure the coaches are putting on youngsters to deliver. In the Premier League, the expectation to deliver is huge. And if you are on loan and playing for a Championship side, it’s the same. They are always involved in a relegation dogfight. That’s not very healthy for a young player. You got to be playing first-team football and that’s missing in England,” Phelan explained.
The odds are firmly stacked against them but can Southgate & Co overcome them? The next two months will tell.
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