Why England, after a half century of failure, is finally playing for a major trophy again

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There's a weird tension that exists around English soccer. They believe they invented the sport, and if you're talking about the modern iteration, they're probably correct — although depending on your definition of "invented" you can also trace it back a couple millennia.

So in a sense, they feel they own it. The results on the pitch declare otherwise. England hasn't won a World Cup since 1966, and that's their only major trophy, which are popularly defined as the World Cups and continental championships.

There have been 37 of them total, including this summer's Euro 2020. England is in the final of that, set to be played Sunday at Wembley Stadium in London, and the favorite to win at +170 with BetMGM. If they do, they'll join the 1966 squad as living, breathing English canon. That side beat West Germany on home soil behind a hat trick from Geoff Hurst, who like his former teammates hasn't had to pay for anything in England since. Sports teams simply don't come more iconic than this one, at least with respect to audience. 

Otherwise, there hasn't been much to celebrate. The semifinal run at the 1990 World Cup. The third-place finish at Euro 96. Generational touchstones, both of them. Nobody lionizes also-rans like the English.

Three summers ago, England reached the World Cup semifinals again, but this time it felt like the start of something rather than the culmination. The average age of that squad was 25 years old. The current edition is even younger. These guys are really, really good, and they figure to be for a long time.

So why did it take this long for soccer's ancestral home to return to this stage? To succeed where other teams failed? To reach this level?

England will play for its first major trophy in 55 years on Sunday in the Euro 2020 final. (REUTERS/Carl Recine)
England will play for its first major trophy in 55 years on Sunday in the Euro 2020 final. (REUTERS/Carl Recine)

Evolution of English soccer from stodgy to world class contenders 

Let's define all that, and work backward doing it. The Euros are, alongside South American World Cup qualifying, as densely laden with good teams as any competition in international soccer, so "this level" is already pretty high at the floor. As for "failure," only one team wins a given tournament, and many more than that enter, so while the trophy is what you're playing for, legacy doesn't stop there. The 1970s Dutch are one of the sport's most lauded innovators, and they never won anything.

As for "this stage," well, the best thing to do is look at who keeps getting there. Germany is the staggering titan of European soccer, with four World Cups, three European titles and seven additional runner-up finishes to their name. Italy has won five major trophies and reached five additional finals. France has played for five major trophies since 1998 and won three of them. Spain put together an unprecedented run of triumphs at Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.

We can trace elements of this English squad tucked away in all those nations' success. Germany famously underwent a reboot in the mid-2000s, spearheaded by Jurgen Klinsmann (try not to groan, USMNT fans) and culminating in a 2014 World Cup title. The Germans uprooted their whole operation, from the youth levels through the national team, and it paid off.

English soccer has undergone a revamp too, though they were more or less forced into it. For decades, domestic leagues were roundly provincial, and the English style was stodgy, while its players bore the burden of grand expectations at major tournaments. Moreover, players didn't have a voice so much as a whisper. There were limits in place on how many foreign-born players could be rostered and how freely they could move from league to league contractually. 

The advent of the Premier League in 1992 — when England's top clubs decided to capitalize on escalating TV rights and broke away from the old First Division to form their own league — coincided with players gaining more power. Foreign influence was coming to England, and it would change the top flight forever. 

The flashpoint figure here is Eric Cantona, a fiery French playmaker who was less direct and more artistic and helmed Manchester United's first string of Premier League titles. His manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, may have been a Brit himself (a Scotsman specifically) but he still demonstrated an ability to evolve tactics and camp out on the cutting edge, which kept his club in title contention for over 20 years.

One of Ferguson's biggest rivals, former Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger, introduced a level of around-the-clock physiology untapped in England. In essence, the Frenchman taught players what to do the 22 hours they're *not* on the pitch so they could maximize themselves when they are.

There are other important figures but what's most significant is how much they improved the Premier League. Suddenly, English players had to get better, too, or else they wouldn't be able to play for their own clubs.

It altered everything, from how academies evaluated talent to the way England's senior national team played. By England's own admission, its teams "aim to dominate possession intelligently, selecting the right moments to progress the play." Boom ball is long gone. Spanish tiki-taka is in, and it will be until someone wrests the mantle of "greatest international dynasty" away from Spain.

Why this is England's best shot in generations 

It all collects into England's Euro 2020 team, which has already beaten Germany for the first time in the knockout stage of a major tournament, as well as a Denmark side that profiled statistically as one of the competition's best. 

It's also conceded only one goal the whole time. Harry Maguire and John Stones have been the type of ball-playing, positionally sound center backs the modern game demands. Luke Shaw and Kyle Walker the aggressive outside backs with the pace to recover when the ball goes the other way.

Kalvin Phillips has been the midfield's tireless ball-winner, Declan Rice its more conservative fulcrum. There's enough attacking talent in the squad, capable of creating, stretching the field and breaking the back line, that the bench is usually as talked about as the starters. Raheem Sterling brings the dynamism, Harry Kane the gravity, Jack Grealish the spark off the bench. 

Picking it all is Gareth Southgate, a Euro 96 veteran whose abilities to connect with players and keenly shift strategy are often the earmark of managers who win titles vs. managers who merely win.

Even then, it's a thin margin. One solitary mistake on your end, and an organized opponent on the other. A bad penalty call. The wrong spin of the penalty kicks wheel. Or sometimes you just face a great team.

The trick is wielding the vagaries to your advantage. The English have raised their game to the point they're in position to do so. They're taking advantage of a cozy tournament schedule that's seen them leave Wembley only once. The penalty Sterling drew in extra time against Denmark has been criticized as soft and simulated, but taken into context, the result it produced was fair. That's how soccer has been played forever. Be better, or control the human element. The English are finally, finally wising up to that.

Their opponent in the final, Italy, certainly knows how. In fact, one of the stories of the tournament has been how the Italians have distanced themselves from their dull, opportunistic past and are playing a skilled, stylish press.

They're on their own evolutionary project, except the interim has been far shorter than England's. Italy missed the 2018 World Cup. England, meanwhile, has missed out on every major trophy in history, save for one.

It can become two Sunday. The most English thing to do, cynics will argue, is come up painfully short.

Then again, this team is redefining what "the most English thing to do" means. And now the only thing left is to do it.

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