When Gareth Southgate gathered his squad together ahead of the World Cup he had a very clear message to deliver. “You are already the second most successful England team ever,” he announced as he stood before them. “Now you have the chance to make history and be the most successful.”
The England manager is right. Reaching a World Cup semi-final in 2018 and the final of Euro 2020 means that only Sir Alf Ramsey, and the players led by him, can be regarded as having performed better than those in the six years since Southgate was appointed. That is already an indisputable fact.
Outside of Ramsey it is, in truth, an incredibly underwhelming record as Southgate has pointed out when he spoke of the envy he feels in comparing England’s Wikipedia page with that of Germany’s: one World Cup against four and no European Championships compared to three – and a Confederations Cup.
Of course the biggest step, the most momentous one, the hardest one is the last one. England, under Southgate, have won nothing yet. If they defeat France, the world champions, in the quarter-final at the Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday evening they still will have not yet won anything. But it not only take them a significant stride closer to triumphing in this tournament but would be England’s greatest victory on foreign soil. Ever. Just think about that.
It would also be the most important win since the 1966 World Cup Final. In the 56 years since then there is precious little to compare. So that is the profound context we are dealing with and which should never be forgotten when critics harp on about Southgate having only beaten the teams England would expect to beat. It should be remembered that, before him, these are the teams they also used to struggle to defeat.
Now Southgate must go further – and make no mistake, he knows it – and it would be crushingly disappointing if France in Al Khor is listed alongside Germany in Bloemfontein, Portugal in Gelsenkirchen, Portugal in Lisbon, Brazil in Shizuoka, Argentina in Saint-Etienne, West Germany in Turin, Argentina in Mexico City and so on as venues where England have fallen short in knock-out ties against other so-called ‘big nations’ in world football. They must eventually beat one of them in a tournament, away from home, surely?
If they do the sense of euphoria it would inject, ahead of a semi-final against either Portugal or Morocco, would be extraordinary. Southgate’s England have crossed through so many apparently insurmountable hurdles that, if they did so again, belief would be soaring.
Interestingly Southgate himself embraced that concept. In a week pre-occupied with combatting the threat posed by Kylian Mbappe, not allowing Antoine Griezmann to “have the run of the park”, as Southgate put it, and whether England will revert to a three-man defence (for the record the manager re-stated his philosophical preference for 4-3-3 but also the need to be pragmatic) he eschewed tactics. Instead he cut to the chase.
The greatest factor, Southgate feels, will be “mentality” and the need to embrace and create history and cope with the occasion.
“The biggest thing for me in the game is going to be our mentality,” Southgate explained. “We’ll of course be tactically prepared. But on these nights you’ve got to have men that stand up and take on the challenge. That’s the bit that we’ve got to prove to people.”
In 2018, in Russia, despite leading in the semi-final against Croatia before eventually losing after extra-time, Southgate did not feel England were in that space. He was just nursing them back to health. Everything else felt like a bonus. “If you’d asked me four years ago were we quite ready, I’m not sure,” Southgate admitted. “Now I feel differently about that, and that’s because we’ve got evidence over a long period of results. Historically we have always talked well, but the evidence wasn’t there. Now we’ve got more evidence and we’ve got to go and nail this type of game now.”
Teams grow and develop and winning tournament football is all about building to that moment. France reached the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup, losing to the eventual winners Germany, before going to the final of their home Euros in 2016, losing to Portugal and, then, finally winning the World Cup in 2018. England have a semi-final in 2018, a final in effectively a home Euros in 2021 now another quarter-final, and hopefully, more. There are therefore clear similarities and Southgate is aware of that. Germany also went close before winning in 2014 as did Spain in 2010 (and 2008). Can it now be England’s time? It is a tantalising theory but theories are just theories until they are proven.
So what will be Southgate’s final message to the players before facing France having told them before a ball was kicked what they could achieve and, also, further back, when the World Cup qualifying campaign started, that losing the final of the Euros cannot be the “pinnacle”? That England “are not done yet”?
“We remind them of the hurdles they have overcome as a group to get to this point; remind them of the qualities they have shown over a period of time and certainly the recent evidence for them in the games they have played,” Southgate explained.
“We have got individual players with big-match experience and, to be honest, I have no fear about the young ones because I think they are just going go and play. In big games, in the end, big players step up and they can be decisive… I think we have got to step up mentally. That is the biggest aspect for me that we are trying to hit this week.” If they can do that then history – and greatness - awaits.