“I spoke to the lads today,” Gareth Southgate told a crowded press conference on Saturday evening, “and none of us fancied going home.”
They don’t have to. England, after beating Sweden 2-0 in Samara, are into the World Cup semi-final for the first time in almost three decades.
For England fans, the victory was disconcertingly comfortable. Enjoyable even. It should have been 90 minutes of anguish and suffering. Instead, the game had the nation pinching itself, just to make absolutely sure this wasn’t some fanciful, blissful dream.
Now is the time to enjoy it, to revel in the giddy celebrations and the all-too-infrequent euphoria that comes with supporting the Three Lions; to keep dreaming that these boys can go all the way.
But when we reach the end of this exhilarating journey, wherever that may be, there will be lessons England can take – messages to carry optimistically into the future. Perhaps, to reverse an old trope, more can be learnt in victory than in defeat.
Following English disappointment at major tournaments – and of that we have had our fair share – ex-pros, pundits and journalists queue up to tell us what can be learnt from our failure. They point to substandard grassroots facilities, too few qualified coaches and outdated management structures at the FA. All valid points.
But amongst these sound arguments, another hackneyed view inevitably raises its weary head. We are told that Premier League clubs, at youth and first-team levels, are home to too many players from overseas. We hear this jingoistic notion over and over, trotted out almost involuntarily by an array of talking heads.
“I think there is a risk of too many foreign players coming over,” said Steven Gerrard a decade ago, “which would affect out national team, if it’s not already.”
Paul Scholes, speaking to the Daily Mail in 2015, echoed his thoughts. “You look at Under-16s or Under-17s and it’s absolutely riddled with foreign players. What chance does that give to young English players?”
These are merely two among many examples that could have been used. Similar words have sprung from the lips of figures as diverse as Carlos Alberto, Boris Johnson, Michel Platini and former FA chairman Greg Dyke.
But rarely do we stop to thoroughly analyse this idea that foreigners are harming the English national team. Perhaps, in the aftermath of England’s brilliant run in Russia, we will finally see what a positive effect this internationalisation has had on our game.
Recently, I spoke to Cesar Sampaio, an integral part of the Brazil team that reached the 1998 World Cup final, and from his neutral position, the observation was quite the opposite. “The English”, he told me, “have benefited from the foreigners that have gone to England.”
How can that be? We are constantly told that only 70 or so of the 220 players starting regularly in the Premier League are eligible to play for England. In 2016, 69.2% of available playing minutes in England’s top flight went to foreigners.
But we are looking at this from the wrong angle. Rather than asking what foreign players take away, we should be looking at what they bring.
Seventy English players are starting regularly in the Premier League. Seventy English players are able to test themselves against the world’s finest talent on a weekly basis, in one of the two toughest leagues in the world, refining their game and pushing them to the limits of their ability.
Seventy players, or, if you like, six for each position in England’s starting XI. Surely that is plenty of top-class talent to choose from.
In fact, of all the 32 nations that started the World Cup, only Germany, Spain and France have more candidates plying their trade in one of Europe’s top five leagues. And, arguably, none of those countries’ top divisions present such a relentless challenge as the Premier League.
The Bosman ruling, which cleared the path for footballers to move freely around Europe in 1995, has had a tremendous effect on the domestic game.
From the likes of Eric Cantona, Thierry Henry and Gianfranco Zola to David Silva, Romelu Lukaku and Christian Eriksen, the quality of players and style of football that English spectators witness on a weekly basis has changed beyond recognition in the subsequent 23 years.
In that same period, England have been to six out of six World Cups. In the 23 years prior to the ruling, when the English top-flight was an almost entirely British league, they failed to qualify at three of their six attempts.
There may be fewer places available for homegrown talent, but to get a starting spot in for one of the top teams, talent is no longer enough. English players must work extraordinarily hard to get to the same level – physically, technically and tactically – as their illustrious team-mates, almost all of whom are experienced internationals.
As part of the argument, it is often said that English players would be just as good as the imports, were they given more chances at a younger age. But in an interview last year, Bournemouth midfielder Harry Arter put paid to that notion.
“I used to see the top clubs paying big money to bring in foreign midfielders”, he told Planet Football, “and there was a thought in my mind that I could do as good a job as them if I got a chance at a big club, but I’ve changed my mind.
“When you play against these guys, they are on a different level… If you come up against a player, you give your all and he comes out better, then you have to accept that and try to improve yourself to get close to that level.”
Just look at how Harry Kane applied himself when he realised the heights he would need to reach to get a chance in the Tottenham first-team. Similarly, his club colleague Kieran Trippier went away and worked on every aspect of his game after failing to break through at Manchester City. He is now the World Cup’s best right-back.
With the influx of foreign players also came foreign managers, and their contribution is perhaps even more significant. The arrival of Arsene Wenger in 1996 revolutionised sport science, training regimes and diets and in recent years the world’s best tacticians have congregated in London, Manchester and Liverpool rather than Barcelona, Munich or Milan.
Nine of England’s starters at this World Cup spent the 2017-8 season under the guidance of Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp or Mauricio Pochettino. It is difficult to imagine that this has not had a positive effect on these players’ performances or supplied their manager with a plethora of new views on how they can be deployed.
This positive effect, contrary to Scholes’ comment at the start of this article, is also trickling down to the youth levels. England, where clubs’ academies contain players and coaches from all over the planet, are currently world champions at U17 and U20 levels.
We do not even need to look to the future; the foreign influence on young players is already evident from this squad. Its average age is 26, the exact same as the Premier League itself. All of them have grown up in this globalised environment, watching fully international football on their doorsteps.
Rio Ferdinand recently described Jesse Lingard as having “game intelligence, speed of movement as well as speed of thought, the ability to play one or two-touch football and an eye for goal,” characteristics we associate more with European than English footballers.
But when you consider that Lingard spent the latter years of his youth career playing under the guidance of Dutchman Rene Meulensteen and alongside Frenchman Paul Pogba, it should be of little surprise.
“English football is very rich today,” Cesar Sampaio concluded, referring not to money but to the abundance of talent.
“There is a lot of culture there.” And it is because of that culture, not despite it, that England are in the position that they are in now, with a future that looks so bright.