England’s long road from San Marino to Qatar


Image description: A view of Wembley stadium, home of the England football team

San Marino 0 — 10 England

For the first time since 1964, England hit double figures as they sailed through to qualification for the 2022 World Cup. 

A fortnight ago, Southgate’s lions roared like never before with a merciless 10-0 demolition of San Marino in Serravalle. 

Harry Kane cemented his place in the history books by scoring four goals in the first half, putting him level with Gary Lineker on 48 England goals. He now stands behind only Sir Bobby Charlton and Wayne Rooney, the record-holder with 53. 

Kane becomes the first England player since Dixie Dean in 1927 to score consecutive hat-tricks, and the first to score four in a game since Ian Wright in 1993. Wright’s quadruple was also against San Marino — one of his opponents was bus driver Pierluigi Benedettini, whose nephew, Elia, was among those dominated by Kane. 

England got off to a flying start with an early header from Harry Maguire, and Filippo Fabri scored an embarrassing own goal by deflecting in a shot from Bukayo Saka.

However, it was Kane whose entirely unrelenting performance seized the spotlight and will be remembered for years to come. He made light work of two penalties and scored an extra couple of trademark finishes with ease. 

The total destruction of San Marino’s hopes continued with a wicked sharpness after half time with a clean finish from Emile Smith Rowe and an angled headed shot from Tyrone Mings — both men’s first international goals. 

Substitute Tammy Abraham and Saka also scored, with England notching up a score of 10 for the first time since they defeated the United States 10-0 in New York City in May 1964. It is the country’s first 10 ever in a competitive fixture. 

It is notable that the only real opposition in England’s steady march to glory came from the natural world. The playing surface itself proved slippery and uncertain, while the lights in the stadium went out with a loud bang for a brief moment three hours before kick off. 

Surely it is no wonder, then, that commentators are already talking with fervent glee about an English victory in Qatar next year? 

“Gareth Southgate will be deemed a failure,” writes one national newspaper, “unless England win the 2022 World Cup.”

Yes, England put on a fantastic show on that Monday evening. And yes, I have every confidence that 2022 will be one of the most promising years in our sporting history. 

However, it is worth reflecting that San Marino, a microstate, is ranked 210th out of 210 in the FIFA World Ranking and has won only one out of their 186 international fixtures. It is tempting to say that the Oxford University 1st XI would give San Marino’s finest a decent run for their money any day. 

England faces a number of potential challenges going into this World Cup. For one thing, Southgate has experimented with a number of strategies, both in terms of formations on the pitch and how he manages the team off the pitch, and it still remains to be seen what exactly his plan of attack will be. 

Will he try to promote young talent or will he stick with the old guard? Will key players still be on good form in a year’s time? How will the squad fare when they next have to face a heavyweight opponent, one with a population rather greater than 35,000?

Southgate will also be feeling the pressure to compete with a women’s team that is currently operating at peak performance. On Tuesday, the Lionesses won an utterly electrifying and unprecedented 20-0 victory against Latvia. With a hat-trick, striker Ellen White smashed the England women’s goalscoring record.

“We should be careful not to fall into the same trap as we did in 2018”

Aside from the football itself, there are also the political questions of quite how England fans are going to react to a World Cup being held in a country which has come under severe criticism for its human rights record and exploitation of workers. Back at home, this is also a difficult time for the domestic game: Gary Hoffman, Chairman of the Premier League, announced recently that he would resign in the wake of the fallout from the takeover of Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United FC by a Saudi-controlled investment consortium. 

We should be careful not to fall into the same trap as we did in 2018, when, after being comparatively quite lucky in the draw, our national hopes were prematurely built up to dizzying heights and then were left dashed in pieces. 

Like the prodigal son, football will inevitably come home — but only when we in England have proved that we are ready for it. 

Image credit: linus_art (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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