John Sturgis

We still believe: Could England win Qatar 2022?

We still believe: Could England win Qatar 2022?
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Here’s a two-pointer pub quiz question: who was Bunny Austin and when, where and why did you hear his name mentioned annually until 2012?

The brilliantly-named Bunny was, for an agonising 74 years of hurt, the last Briton to reach the final of the men's singles at Wimbledon. He didn’t actually win it in 1938, like the better known Fred Perry had three times earlier in that decade. But his name came up in commentary and sports reports without fail every year for decades, in late June or early July, whenever the last Brit was knocked out or, on heady occasions, when one reached the quarters or even semis. Tim Henman must curse his name to this day.

The reason he fell out of the national conversation was that in 2012 Andy Murray finally broke the hoodoo and won a semi-final, consigning Bunny from annual fame to indefinite pub quiz obscurity.

Having achieved this, however, Murray, just like his thirties predecessor had, fell short in his final, losing to Roger Federer. But unlike Bunny that wasn’t the end for the cheery Scot in SW19. He came back to actually win the thing the following year. And again in 2016.

Why do I mention all this? Well because I think there could be a parallel to be drawn with what happened at Wembley last night.

Everywhere I see people looking utterly crushed by England’s defeat today. We blew it. We came so close etc. But if you separate out what may very well be the symptoms of an epic hangover that is afflicting you from your wider and more permanent sense of perspective, you may see that there are reasons for extraordinary optimism regarding the England football team and its future.

We just entered a competition featuring at least seven of the best ten teams in the world. We emerged unbeaten, winning four, drawing two, overcoming a 51-year-old traumatic in-competition record against our biggest rival in the process – and only failing to win the thing by a margin of fingertips.

Our team had the second lowest average age, at just 25, in the whole competition, behind only the very disappointing Turkey.

This could be very significant. Italy’s celebrated defensive pair, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, who did so much to prevent an England win last night, have a combined age of 70 already and there have to be serious doubts that either will be around at the next World Cup – which is only 16 months away.

Contrast this with the England team whose oldest player last night, Kyle Walker, is barely into his thirties and still among the fastest players in the world let alone the country. All of them will be around for the Qatar World Cup. How good will the still-maturing Saka, Sancho and Mount be by then? And there will surely be more young gun contenders by next November too.

Of course, all the talk of knighthoods and statues of Gareth Southgate last week was not just premature but hubristic. He wasn’t perfect. Everywhere today people are debating what decisions he got wrong. But remember – he also got so much right.

I was born just after we won the 1966 World Cup. And I have never seen England win a big time tournament semi-final before. For 12 years of my childhood we didn’t even qualify for World Cups. This summer has been a high-water mark. Yes, we didn’t win it. But we still achieved more than I’ve seen in nearly 50 years of watching football. And you can only win a final by getting to one.

Going back to Wimbledon and tennis briefly: for me, the single greatest sporting contest I have ever seen was the first Borg-McEnroe final there in 1980. During the fourth set tie-break alone, which lasted an epic 20 minutes and ran to 34 insanely intensely-fought points, McEnroe, in his first Wimbledon final, saved an incredible five match points - only to go down 8-6 in the fifth set. It wasn’t like losing a penalty shoot-out, it was like losing five in one afternoon.

But what happened the next summer? They had a rematch and McEnroe won his first Wimbledon title.

Sometimes losing a final can be a staging post to reaching the next one – and winning it. Just as Southgate built on his fine achievement of getting to a semi-final in Russia in 2018, this summer he went a stage further. Next year, it’s entirely possible that he could go a stage further again.

Football may yet come home.