England closes in on finally winning another World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — It’s been nine years since then-England Football Association president Greg Dyke set the national team as an audacious goal to win the 2022 World Cup.

While that goal may not seem as fanciful as it once did, the problems Dyke said have dogged England for nearly 50 years, since their only triumph in 1966, remain just as important ahead of Monday’s Group B opener against Iran.

The Premier League’s glut of global talent means England manager Gareth Southgate will select fewer home-grown players in the top flight.

In 2013 Dyke described it as a “frightening trend” and said “English football is a tanker that needs to be turned around”.

“The problem is serious, very serious,” he said in a speech that proved right, not least because England has so far met or exceeded his targets, despite ongoing concerns that are still not fully resolved.

Those main goals included “at least” reaching the semi-finals of the 2020 European Championship. England lost to Italy on penalties in the final of last year’s tournament, which was postponed for 12 months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

At the last World Cup in Russia, Southgate led his team to the semi-finals, ahead of Dyke’s schedule.

As part of his nine-year plan, Dyke also wanted progress to be reflected at youth level.

“I would like to see us do well in the 2017 Under-20 World Cup,” he said.

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England won that tournament, as did the U17s the same year.

Dyke’s goals were eerily accurate – and England’s trajectory over the past four years points to a serious challenge in Qatar. But Southgate still feels he is hampered by the same problems his predecessors faced.

Nine years ago Dyke was talking about only 32% of English players in the starting lineups of Premier League clubs. The picture Southgate painted when he announced his 26-man squad last week was no more encouraging.

“Everyone says we have massive depth, but last year we were 31% in the league,” Southgate said. “Because the team has done well, it has masked the fact that we only have four English goalkeepers playing in the Premier League at the moment. Left-backs, there aren’t many players.”

Southgate highlighted defensive midfield as an area for England’s academies to focus on when he had to select Calvin Phillips, despite the Manchester City man having managed just 40 minutes since undergoing shoulder surgery in September.

Not a single player who featured in the finals of the Under-20 World Cup-winning team is part of Southgate’s squad in Qatar. Only Phil Foden and Conor Gallagher made it past the winning U17 team.

However, this year’s squad is thought to have generational talent, notably Foden, Jude Bellingham and Jack Grealish. But England go into this World Cup with a sense of what might have been.

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Success in 2018 and Euro 2020 felt ahead of the curve with the promise of a raft of players maturing in time for this year’s competition. Last year, Southgate might have expected Mason Greenwood to establish himself at the forefront of Manchester United’s attack and as a real rival to Harry Kane at England centre-forward.

The prodigious talent, who is equally clinical with either foot, has looked as exciting as any England prospect since Wayne Rooney. But the striker, who has been charged with attempted rape, controlling and coercive behavior and assault, has not played since January after being suspended by United.

Jadon Sancho’s form has dropped alarmingly since his $100 million move to United from Borussia Dortmund in 2021 and he is no longer in the picture for England. To a lesser extent, club-mate Marcus Rashford has failed to develop as expected but remains part of Southgate’s squad after a promising start to the season.

Injuries to Chelsea full-backs Rhys James and Ben Chilwell also dealt a significant blow to England’s preparations. But if Southgate was powerless to control any of those situations, the apparent reluctance to make Foden the focal point of his team is down to him.

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He has been compared to City great David Silva as he progressed at club level, and for the national team he is regarded as the player England have lacked since Paul Gascoigne in the 1990s. However, Southgate was unable to find a settled position for the 22-year-old striker either in midfield or in attack.

For a nation that has long struggled to keep possession against the best teams, a player who can handle the ball as well as Foden should be a fixture. Instead, there is no guarantee that he will start against Iran, nor in what position he would play.

Southgate’s handling of Foden — and Grealish — is fueling a belief among some that the manager is too conservative and too reliant on a trusted few. Harry Maguire is expected to be at the heart of the defense despite being dropped by United this season. Raheem Sterling is likely to feature despite enduring a difficult start to life at Chelsea. Phillips and Kyle Walker are both in the squad despite injuries.

But they all produced consistently for England – especially at the big tournaments.

While critics might accuse Southgate of blind faith, he might point to the very lack of options Dyke outlined nine years ago.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson



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