Forget the summer’s achievements in Russia, forget 1966 and all that. England are closing in on their next chance at becoming the Unofficial World Champions with a Nations League semi-final against the Netherlands.
It’s been over four years since one of these matches presented itself. This autumn, thanks to a remarkable performance in a Nations League group featuring Spain and Croatia, the England team once more qualified for a semi-final.
It was, rather ironically, Croatia who eliminated Gareth Southgate’s men from the World Cup in Russia, but Harry Kane’s 85th-minute strike against the same opponent in November ensured they would go forward to the next stages of UEFA’s latest competition.
In June, they’ll meet the Netherlands, the current unofficial World Champions and it could give England their first stab at taking the unofficial title in four years. They’re classed as favourites for that game in the latest sports betting but need the Netherlands not to lose to Belarus and Germany in the interim period.
The game in which they last contested the honour was a so-called dead rubber in the 2014 World Cup. Roy Hodgson’s side had floundered, losing group games against Italy and Uruguay to be dumped out of the competition. All that remained was a dour 0-0 draw with Costa Rica, the unofficial world champions game at the time.
In the four years that have separated the two ‘finals’, the international scene has changed considerably for England. A disappointing Euro 2016 saw many of the old guard fall out of favour. Four years ago, in Brazil, Frank Lampard was still in the midfield, with Milner on the right and Ross Barkley on the left. The former Everton man is one who might get a chance against the Netherlands but, overall, the changes have been wide-ranging.
Many laughed at Gareth Southgate when he started naming relative unknowns in his England team. Kieran Trippier hadn’t looked like an England international for most of his career but, in the summer, he stood out in a remarkable run which saw pride restored in the national team.
There are other young players coming through too. By the time the Netherlands provide the opposition, there could be a place for Mason Mount, the Chelsea player on loan at Derby County. Harvey Barnes could be in contention too. He’s also in the Championship playing for West Brom on loan from Leicester City.
In four years, the only player to remain in both squads is Ross Barkley, billed as a precocious talent in 2014 but now part of a far more youthful and functional England side. He was the only player to start against Costa Rica in 2014 and for England in their last ‘competitive’ fixture against Croatia in 2018.
Whilst the unofficial World Champions are just that, unofficial, the difference in quality, outlook and belief between the two matches in which England could challenge will be staggering. In just over two years, Gareth Southgate has taken a broken England team and placed his faith not in big names, not in experienced professionals, but in exciting youngsters.
It could mean England will become official World Champions for the first time in 19 years, ever since holding the title for three days in the group stages of Euro 2000. Beyond that, who knows, maybe some proper silverware for the first time in over half a century.