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Can England become the new Germany at major tournaments?

England
(Image credit: PA Images)

Germany deserved to lift the 2014 World Cup. Perhaps for Mario Gotze’s wonderful winner in the final, or the historic 7-1 thrashing of Brazil in the previous round, or the sense that, without always being exceptional, they were probably the best team of the tournament. 

But there is a separate argument: that they merited it for perseverance, for always being among the outstanding sides in the international game, for a greater body of work. They had reached at least the semi-finals in four previous tournaments. It scarcely felt unfair that the generation of Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski had something to show for their considerable efforts and their consistency.

Famously, Germany were the archetypal tournament team, the group invariably found in the latter stages. That description has rarely applied to England in recent decades but they are not such an incongruous presence in the semi-finals now. If the ultimate aim for Gareth Southgate, which could be realised at Wembley on Sunday, is to make them winners on a major stage, becoming the sort of heavyweights who always punch their way through to the business end of a tournament is progress in itself. The 2018 World Cup semi-final is not yet the rule, but nor is it a complete exception now.

That Euro 2020 ends at Wembley means it is England’s best chance of silverware since 1966; perhaps it is, too, because of the elimination of France, who had threatened to emulate the Spain team of a decade ago by setting about completing a clean sweep of the honours. Yet it is not their only opportunity: it is not now or never. That is not to say England should not grasp their opportunity. But if Greece in 2004 are an extreme example of a team whose foray to the last four always felt a one-off, there are other outliers: Denmark in 1992, Bulgaria in 1994, Turkey in 2002, Wales in 2016.

In contrast, and while England’s history ought to guard against suggestions they have any kind of guarantee of a presence in most meaningful games, it would be less of a surprise to see them in another semi-final relatively soon.

World Cups can be harder to win – though European sides have claimed the last four – but the congestion of tournaments means there are two more in the next three years. With a select few notable exceptions, like Kyle Walker and Jordan Henderson, most of this squad are young enough to be at their prime in 2024. Maybe 2028 is the tournament when some of Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka, Mason Greenwood, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Dean Henderson might peak. Jude Bellingham will still only be 26 when the 2030 World Cup starts. In at least some positions, there are talents like Emile Smith Rowe, Tariq Lamptey, Ben Godfrey and Curtis Jones waiting in the wings. Gareth Southgate’s enduring presence indicates England will have the right kind of direction for the immediate future. 

Being a tournament team, the sort that habitually escapes the group stages and sometimes wins knockout ties, especially against the better sides, is an achievement in itself. But there are different types: the all-conquering sides, like Spain of 2008-12, and those who, like Germany in 2014 or 1990, crown an era with one trophy. 

Then there is a third category, of the serial semi-finalists (and sometimes, finalists) but who had no signature feat and no gold medals. Think of Holland in the 1970s and again between 1998 and 2004 or Italy between 1988 and 1994 or Portugal from 2000 to 2006. The exception in much he did, Cristiano Ronaldo survived from the 2004 team to taste glory in 2016. If his earlier team-mates such as Luis Figo and Rui Costa were international nearly men, England will want to escape the same fate. But, for much of the last five decades, they have not got close enough to rank as nearly men. Almost getting there is better than being nowhere near.

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RICHARD JOLLY Can England become the new Germany at major tournaments?