The Nations League represents a new opportunity in a novel format for Gareth Southgate’s side, but a quick glance back at one of the most easily-forgotten chapters in England’s footballing history shows that, really, they have been here before. For the Nations League of 2019, read Le Tournoi of 1997, an unusual four-team tournament which came at a time of burgeoning enthusiasm for the national side.
The parallels between the two events, both on and off the pitch, are hard to ignore. It has taken a little over two decades but England have truly come full circle as they look to lift their first trophy on foreign soil since that nine-day jaunt in France 22 years ago. A Nations League triumph will be seen as a considerably more prestigious title than a friendly tournament in 1997, but the context of the two events remains eerily similar.
Where to start? Perhaps with the timing, three years after despair and one year on from the return of hope. For this England, it was the recovery from the humiliation of losing to Iceland at Euro 2016 and the subsequent, galvanising run to the last four of the 2018 World Cup. For England of the mid-90s, it was the recovery from the humiliation of failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup and the subsequent, galvanising run to the last four of Euro 1996.
Glenn Hoddle was the Southgate figure: a young, tactically aware manager who had made more than 50 appearances for his country as a player. The squads were similar, too, with the likes of Sol Campbell, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes all contributing to a youthful, promising feel that is matched by Southgate’s current crop. As it is with Harry Kane now, the star man and captain was a clinical centre-forward in the shape of Alan Shearer.
“Shearer paints a picture of English renaissance,” read the headline in one newspaper that summer. Other reports attempted to quantify the “new-found optimism” around the national side. The matches were even broadcast on Sky Sports, away from free-to-air TV, as the Nations League will be this week.
Perhaps it was the lack of viewers that contributed to the summer of ‘97 falling so swiftly out of the collective memory. Indeed, for most people Le Tournoi is better known for being the setting for one of the great free kicks from Roberto Carlos, the Brazilian full-back whose ‘banana’ shot remains one of the most ludicrous strikes the game has seen.
The major difference, England will hope, is that the Nations League will be regarded as a genuine title. Time will tell on that front, although it is certain that the current England team are treating their trip to Portugal with the utmost seriousness. The nature of the two trophies — the grand, sleek Nations League edition is far removed from Le Tournoi’s bizarre comic book-style ball-shaped trophy — also adds a layer of gravitas that was missing in France.
Still, the opposition was formidable back then, more so than it is in Portugal this week, and such was England’s exuberance on the pitch that L’Equipe, the French sports newspaper, wrote that Hoddle’s players were “chic”. Wins over Italy (World Cup finalists in 1994) and France (World Cup winners in 1998, a year later) secured the trophy for England, who lost to Brazil (world champions at the time) in their final match in Paris.
“The pressure was off,” Stuart Pearce told Sky Sports. “It was a more enjoyable tournament to play in.” Southgate, meanwhile, has said it was “like the perfect stag week” as England jetted from Nantes to Montpellier and then to the French capital. “Really good food, nice weather, what’s not to like?”
Hoddle’s side were as exciting and fresh as Southgate’s team is now. The defeat to Brazil, though, was a reality check that sounds unavoidably familiar today. “England can be congratulated for earning the right to joust with the best but last night they discovered that they still have some way to go to match them,” wrote the Independent in a reflection that could just as accurately have been applied to England’s World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia last year.
Naturally, the promise of ‘97 went unfulfilled a year later, when England lost to Argentina in the round of 16 at the 1998 World Cup. Le Tournoi turned out to be the high point of a cycle that took England from desperation to optimism and then back to disappointment again. So far, Southgate’s England have trod the same path, in a similar style. The challenge will be not only to win the Nations League but to ensure that, 22 years from now, the trip to Portugal in 2019 is known as a major stepping stone for the side rather than an oft-forgotten little piece of their footballing history.