Gareth Southgate vows to end 72-year hoodoo against world's elite

Gareth Southgate laughs at training - REUTERS/Molly Darlington
Gareth Southgate laughs at training - REUTERS/Molly Darlington

Gareth Southgate has challenged England to make “history” in the World Cup quarter-final against France and finally end a hoodoo that has affected them for 72 years.

If England defeat the world champions it will be the first time ever that they have won a knockout tie against another so-called ‘big nation’ in a major finals away from Wembley.

England’s history at such tournaments is littered by bitter and often catastrophic examples of them exiting the first time they come up against another elite footballing country.

This stretches back to losing to Uruguay in the World Cup quarter-finals in Switzerland in 1954 – having failed to get through the group at their first World Cup four years earlier – and also applies to European Championships.

England have beaten other ‘big teams’ in group games in the past – Argentina in the 2002 World Cup and France, of course, in 1982 spring to mind. And have beaten them at home – not just in 1966 but Euro 96, defeating Netherlands and Spain and Euro 2020 with the win over Germany. But never outside England in the latter stages of a competition.

Dejected Glen Johnson, John Terry, David James and Matthew Upson of England after Thomas Mueller of Germany scores his side's third - Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Dejected Glen Johnson, John Terry, David James and Matthew Upson of England after Thomas Mueller of Germany scores his side's third - Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

They did defeat Spain in the quarter-finals of the European Championship in 1968, on their way to finishing third, but that tie was over two legs and did not take place in the host nation, Italy, and so strictly speaking was not part of the finals for the tournament.

Since then it has been a litany of defeats – against Germany (three times), Portugal (twice), Brazil, Italy and Argentina. The list is extensive. Now it is France, on Saturday, and for the first time ever in a knockout tie.

“We’ve made quite a bit of history over the last four, five years,” Southgate said. “But that’s the great challenge. When you go back through those tournaments, you do see the teams that have knocked England out. We haven’t been able to do that so that’s the next test for this team.”

England under Southgate have passed several impressive tests already: getting out of a group at a tournament, after two failures under Roy Hodgson before he was appointed, winning a penalty shoot-out for the first time since Euro 96, winning a knockout tie, reaching a semi-final, a final and now a quarter-final.

Indeed Southgate has already established himself the second-most successful manager in the 150-year history of the England national team, after Sir Alf Ramsey, and is three games away from being the most successful.

There was another remarkable statistic after England’s 3-0 win over Senegal in the last 16 which has set up what promises to be an epic quarter-final: England won six knockout ties between 1968 and 2016 (Paraguay, Cameroon, Belgium, Denmark, Ecuador and – at Euro 96 – Spain) and have equalled that total, and done so in just four years under Southgate (Colombia, Sweden, Germany, Ukraine, Denmark and Senegal).

Raheem scores - Marc Atkins/Getty Images
Raheem scores - Marc Atkins/Getty Images

“We are different, there is no doubt about that. We are obviously further down the line as a team,” Southgate said when asked whether he felt the gap was finally closing between England and the likes of France.

“There have been lots of moments when to play with England is difficult. It’s a different sort of challenge to your club. It’s far more scrutiny ... So you have to be able to handle that. When we’re selecting players we’re looking at their ability to handle that mentally as much as anything else. And these young lads that have come in are showing that. But you never know until they are in these moments how that’s going to be.”

Reaching the last eight is regarded as the minimum required for Southgate and England although some will argue, even if there is little logic to it, that should they go out to France it will be a backward step after the last two tournaments. One accusation unfairly made against Southgate’s England is that they only beat the teams they are expected to beat – forgetting that these are the teams they used to get beaten by.

However Southgate is confident that England – and the side that started against Senegal had an average of more than 40 caps each – can handle the occasion and the growing expectation which is starting to grip the country before Saturday's epic showdown. “The team do have good experience of these big games now. We had a lot of caps on the pitch, even the younger ones because we’ve blooded them early. And we’ve given them experiences,” he said. “It’s meant the depth of the squad but also the experience on the pitch is better than it’s been for quite a while.”

'This is the best version of Hendo'

Southgate also paid tribute to the difference Jordan Henderson, who scored the opening goal against Senegal, has made since he returned to the team in the group game against the United States. “It means we’ve got a bit of balance and I think this is the best version of Hendo we’ve had,” he said of the 32-year-old midfielder.

If England are to progress to the semi-finals they will have to get the better of Kylian Mbappé, the world’s best player at present with Southgate acknowledging the danger the forward poses. So far Mbappé has scored five goals and is the tournament’s leading scorer and Southgate said: “Look, he is a world-class player who is always producing the moments when they are needed and that is what those top, top players do.

“Australia did so many things right [in their last-16 tie] and [Lionel] Messi pops up and delivers that moment. That is what the big guys do. That is the challenge we face.”

It will be fascinating to see, with almost a week to prepare, whether Southgate decides the best way to combat against Mbappé is to change his system to a back three which he used successfully in the last World Cup and in the final stages of the Euros.

“We’ve always got to get the balance of the team right. We’re wanting to be positive, we feel we’ve done that so far in this tournament,” Southgate said. “I think we’ve got energy in the team, we’ve got legs in the team, we’ve got depth in the squad. So I don’t think we should be drifting too far from what we’ve been.”