How a corruption scandal accidentally enabled England's World Cup semifinal run

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If you were to trace most World Cup runs back to their source, the vast majority would take you back to a training field; or perhaps a meeting room; or a developmental initiative that birthed a generation of stars. England’s, however, begins elsewhere.

It begins at the May Fair, a swank London hotel, and at an upscale Cantonese restaurant in Manchester. There, on two separate occasions, a jowly 61-year-old British manager, relaxed in a fern-green sport coat and plaid dress shirt, met with whom he thought were two businessmen. Except they weren’t.

The manager was Sam Allardyce, then at the helm of England’s national team. And he was explaining to the “businessmen” how to circumvent FIFA and English Football Association rules. He was negotiating an agreement with a fictitious Far East company that would pay him six figures for a single speaking engagement – never mind that the “company” would engage in illicit business, the very type Allardyce had detailed how to conduct.

Little did Allardyce know that the businessmen were not businessmen at all, but rather undercover journalists. And little did the reporters know that their covert investigation would enable England’s best men’s World Cup campaign in decades.

England’s ill-fated Allardyce appointment

Allardyce had been an uninspired selection in the first place. Hired less than a month after one colossal England failure at Euro 2016, the directive, it seemed, was to avoid a second, rather than to progress.

Throughout the 21st century, the Three Lions job had alternated between well-travelled, well-known foreigners and accomplished Englishmen. Allardyce, tabbed to replace Roy Hodgson, bucked the trend. He was not just another Englishman; he was the most English of Englishmen.

He was the pick of a shortlist teeming with mediocrity. His most notable accomplishment had been a sixth-place Premier League finish with Bolton, a feat that nearly landed him the England job in 2006. In the interim, he came the ultimate retread – the safe play, blocking paths for younger, brighter minds. But somehow, after 10 years of overachieving then fizzling out at five different middling clubs, Allardyce was in the running again. This time, he got the job.

And had he held onto it, England surely wouldn’t be where it is today.

Allardyce ousted by scandal

Before Allardyce had even taken charge of a game, he had taken up meeting invitations and faux offers from the undercover reporters. Three weeks after his first game, a dramatic 1-0 win over Slovakia, the Daily Telegraph published the first piece of its investigation into corruption in English soccer. “England manager Sam Allardyce for sale,” the headline blared.

Accompanying it was video. There were follow-up stories detailing Allardyce’s inappropriate dealings; his comfort with forbidden payments; and his derogatory mocking and criticism of Hodgson, Gary Neville, the FA and others.

The following day, Allardyce was effectively fired. English soccer was in turmoil. The FA, enveloped by controversy, had sunk to a new low.

Sam Allardyce is swarmed by reporters as he leaves his family home in Bolton following his resignation as England manager. (Getty)
Sam Allardyce is swarmed by reporters as he leaves his family home in Bolton following his resignation as England manager. (Getty)

Or, perhaps, the FA had been rescued, saved from its own mundane, conservative decision-making. Buried at the end of its news release: “Gareth Southgate will take charge of the men’s senior team for the next four matches against Malta, Slovenia, Scotland and Spain whilst The FA begins its search for the new England manager.”

England lucks into Southgate

The English FA didn’t want to hire Gareth Southgate. Not originally, at least. In fact, it didn’t have to hire him at all. That had already been done, albeit for a different role. Southgate was the under-21s coach.

And he, at least not initially, hadn’t wanted the senior job. He had quashed suggestions he’d take the position on a short-term basis after Euro 2016. He agreed to take the interim gig in September due to the desperation and urgency of the situation. But, as ESPN wrote at the time, he “appeared little more than a stopgap or last resort.” 

Southgate did not have the résumé of an England manager. He had procured his first managerial job at the age of 35, immediately following his retirement as a player, without the necessary coaching licenses. Three years and a relegation later, he was sacked. He hadn’t held another senior coaching gig since.

But over seven weeks, three World Cup qualifiers and a friendly, Southgate impressed. His Three Lions went unbeaten. Perhaps most importantly, as Southgate recently said, “I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would. … I could see that the players were hungry enough and humble enough to take on board some of the ideas we were going to try to implement. So I thought it was worth having a go for.”

The FA thought so, too. In part for lack of a better alternative, it removed the interim tag and handed Southgate a four-year contract. Twenty months later, it looks like one of the best decisions the oft-derided federation has ever made.

Southgate’s brilliance

Southgate would be the first to give credit to his players. Unlike his disgraced predecessor – who has decried prejudice against British coaches, despite reality being just the opposite – Southgate is incredibly humble. But make no mistake: he, more than any other individual, has driven England to the World Cup semis.

He has overhauled the national team in so many ways. Whereas Allardyce criticized Hodgson for taking too many young players to the Euros, Southgate doubled down on youth, picking England’s most inexperienced World Cup squad ever. Whereas Allardyce belabored tiresome points about “psychological barriers” and burdensome expectations, Southgate hasn’t dwelled on the past.

Instead of fretting about unquantifiable, possibly negligible influences, Southgate – as open-minded as ever, admitting to the limits of his existing expertise – hunted everywhere for competitive advantages. He looked to the NFL and the NBA; to sports such as rugby, cricket, track and field, boxing, cycling, skating, swimming and canoeing. Heeding the lessons of a trip to the Super Bowl, the FA has fostered a more open, less antagonistic relationship between players and media. After in-depth study of the American sports, Southgate stole space-creation concepts for his own set plays.

A focus on set pieces has been one of his chief on-field innovations. Corners and free kicks have accounted for 42 percent of goals at the 2018 World Cup. But set play practice rarely accounts for anywhere close to 42 percent of training time. Southgate recognized the inefficiency as opportunity. Set pieces, accounting for seven of England’s 11 goals, have powered the Three Lions through the tournament.

Southgate has also tailored a system and a style to his players, rather than imposing on them preordained ones. He has defined that system, detailed it, dedicated himself and the team to it, and drilled it. The result: England, excluding a meaningless group stage finale, has conceded one open-play goal over its last 1,197 minutes of soccer.

And yet if only the FA had hired an ethical, law-abiding manager two years ago, none of this would have been possible.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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