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Can an England win heal the nation?

Some kids grow up these days thinking the Internet has always been around and footballers have always been paid weekly wages bigger than Number 10’s decorating bill, but the summers of the late nineties were simpler and purer times.

Washing cars for fifty pence one week, hosepipe bans the next. The older kids debating Blur and Oasis, the younger ones dancing along to the Spice Girls, and of course, international football tournaments.

Euro '96 was a youngster’s football awakening. Until that time, football matches felt like shows clubs put on for the entertainment of fans, independent from one another, like concerts, theatre shows or Saturday morning matinee films. Tournament football changed it all. The axis of the Earth shifted, those young kids realised their first love.

Football, it dawned on us, was organised, competitive, tribal. That summer, a whisper of “it’s coming home” danced on the afternoon breeze and echoed down the alley ways between rows of houses during games of hide and seek. An anthem, and the game was taking hold in us.

Twenty five years later, the face of football anew, England are presented with their best chance of winning a major tournament since going out on penalties to Germany. As Euro 2020 is about to get underway, a year delayed, lifting the trophy could have lifting effects for the nation too.

Football has an incorrigible habit of seeking change for the sake of it though. The Euro’s will be played in all corners of Europe, and travel restrictions aside, would have one of the biggest carbon footprints of any major tournament.

The pandemic has somewhat nullified that issue, and as a result England, a generation on since their hearts broker from twelve yards out, have another (effectively) home tournament. Spain, Denmark and Germany have similar advantages, but with the latter stages of the knock out rounds in London, England hold the trump card. Much like the Olympics nine years ago, it could revive the national mood, one weighed down by a political divide, the pandemic, Brexit and even the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Three Lions’ campaign starts against the side who despatched them from the 2018 World Cup, Croatia. Since, the Kockasti have slipped to 14th in the FIFA rankings, but are not to be taken lightly. England’s opener, should they progress from the group, will determine either a knockout route that stays at Wembley, or one that goes via Copenhagen and Baku.

The nation does feels buoyed in that typically British way, even if it doesn’t quite carry the upward trajectory the late nineties had. There’s optimism in the air as the vaccine roll out is in full swing, public life somewhat has returned to normal and Gareth Southgate takes some of the country’s most exciting prospects in years in to battle. It’s what’s known as complacency too.

No new story here. The same cycle we get every other summer; the press write the theme tune, and the public hum along.

England cake walking it to the knock-out stages is by no means in the bag though. Four right backs is one, possibly two, too many and brings in to question Southgate’s judgement. An injury to Trent Alexander Arnold somewhat solves that dilemma, but it’s one the manager should have resolved himself to begin with.

The squad lacks balance, and in some key areas depth. In a 4-3-3 Declan Rice, Mason Mount and Jordan Henderson (if fit) should start. To accompany Harry Kane, that leaves the manager picking two forwards from the other seven selected. One of those is Jack Grealish who could operate in a deeper role, but otherwise, the centre of the park is threadbare.

Brighton’s Ben White comes in for TAA and whilst it adds up given Harry Maguire isn’t 100%, White’s addition shows Southgate second guessing himself. If the centre backs selected don’t meet the standards needed, then White should have been in along.

In Russia back in 2018, around half the goals scored were free kicks. Those sort of stats, and the sometimes cautious displays tournament football can serve up, call out for a set piece specialist.

Twice, in the provisional squad and in finalising, James Ward-Prowse has been overlooked.

City fans know all too well there isn’t room for both Phil Foden and the out of sorts Raheem Sterling.

For months the plaudits have been laid at Phil Foden’s feet. At 21 years old, the Stockport Iniesta has set his own bar, and et it high. It’s easy to forget Foden is surrounded by better players and coached by a better manager week in week out at Manchester City.

If Raheem Sterling is in contention, Foden must be picked ahead of him. It’s a paradox Southgate has to solve. Pick experience, and likely be underwhelmed. Pick youth, and potentially create false, unrealistic expectations. Pick both, and England lack balance.

On the bright side, it is the most technically talented squad England have ever assembled. There’s reason for the nation to feel encouraged, with a golden generation 2.0 converging and public life somewhat returning to normal.

These tournaments have a way of instilling a togetherness in the nation. The summer of ’96 was significantly blemished by the Manchester bombing, but the country resiliently remained on an upward trajectory. Ten years prior, in he late eighties, football was a stain on British culture. But Manchester re-built itself, whilst new Labour came to power.

The nation’s sporting success empowers the country to think with a renewed positivity about it’s identity. Today, the country is fractured by the bipartisan mismanagement of Brexit, and open wounds still remains over the management of the pandemic. In 2012 when the country was sailing in calmer waters, the London Olympics were enough to restore an old pride in the British identity, one of individuality, innovation and independence. Public and political debate rumbled and just over three years later, a referendum to leave Europe was announced.

An England win won’t influence the UK back in to the EU, but it might bring the country together just enough so it can finally move forward. Southgate’s legacy from Euro ’96, after missing the decisive penalty, was typically British; laugh at oneself (in a pizza advert). Here’s hoping for success, on and off the pitch, for England.

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