KOLKATA: Right after England had triumphed in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in June, one of the many cautiously optimistic articles that appeared in its wake called it a ‘summer of hope’. Summer is long gone and winter is almost here. But hope, for English football, has flickered brighter as the days grow colder.
On Wednesday, England’s U-17 team dominated Brazil in a 3-1 victory in the semifinal of the U-17 World Cup. That ‘England’ and ‘World Cup semifinal’ are appearing in the same sentence is marvel enough, but even more astonishing has been their run in age-group tournaments this year. The European U-21 championships remains the only tournament they’ve failed to make the final of, losing out to Germany on penalties. In the U-17 European championships, they lost in the final to Spain on penalties. They won the U-20 World Cup, the U-19 Euros and the annual U-21 Toulon tournament held in France. And now they’ve made the final of the U-17 World Cup, managing to look better and better as the tournament wore on.
Their domination is as impressive as the way they dispatched Brazil in the semifinal. No team has scored as many goals as the 18 England have. Liverpool wonderkid Rhian Brewster, who destroyed Brazil with a second successive hat-trick, is now the highest scorer of the tournament. And after putting three past Brazil while conceding only one, they’ve taken over the mantle of the tournament’s best defence from their victims. In their six games, they have only conceded four goals.
Against Brazil, England put in the kind of complete performance that teams would kill for, at the latter stages of a major tournament. At one end, especially in the early stages of the game when the football was end-to-end, England replied to every Brazil attack with an even more devastating one of their own. And the difference was that, while the Brazilian defence crumpled under repeated waves of English pressure, the likes of Manchester City’s tall central defender Joel Latibeaudiere stood firm. England’s opener — Brewster tapping it in the tenth minute after his initial tamer attempt off Callum Hudson-Odo’s cross was spilt by the Brazil keeper — was a consequence of the pressure that they applied. It was not for nothing that Brazil coach Carlos Amadeu repeated ‘England was better’ at least three times in his post-match press conference.
But what has led to this amazing turnaround? Towards the end of 2014, the FA unveiled the ‘England DNA’ manifesto, centered around their St George’s Park facility, aimed at developing players who were ‘comfortable on the ball, shrewd in the mind and able to rise to any challenge’.
On Wednesday, they were all that and more. While it could just be happy coincidence that England’s domination of world football just happened to come two years after its launch, coach Steve Cooper thinks it’s a direct consequence. “We are part of the DNA project, our success goes hand in hand with that,” he said. “No doubt, this (England’s run) is an amazing recognition of what the clubs are doing and what we’re doing with the DNA at St George’s Park.”
It would be arrogance to presume that this could lead to dominance at the senior level, but the signs bode well. Since 2007, either Spain or Germany have made the final of nine of the 11 U-17 Euros. The 2013 edition of the U-17 World Cup was the first in a decade to not feature one of Brazil, Spain or Germany in the last-four. There is enough evidence that success at this level can lead to a greatness at the senior level. And for England’s kids, the road to greatness starts on Saturday.