Before England set off for Qatar, there was a feeling at the top of the Football Association, a consensus even. The World Cup was wide open, with eight or nine countries capable of winning it and England were absolutely a part of this pack. Yet if there was one team that stood out in the view of senior FA figures, one to be feared more than the others, it was France.
Perhaps the view was coloured by the possibility of France lying in wait for England at the quarter‑final stage, being the first elite-level nation that Gareth Southgate’s team stood to face. It was a prospect to sharpen minds and one that has duly played out – the showdown is on for Saturday night at Al Bayt Stadium.
But English football has had eyes on France for rather longer – going back, without exaggeration, to the turn of the millennium. It has felt, at various times, that the FA has measured itself against its French counterpart, that the game in England has had something of a complex about the one across the Channel. It was never more pronounced than in the wake of France’s 1998 World Cup triumph.
With France on top and England lagging without direction, the FA made an admission that was both humbling and transformative. It was not only ready to learn from France’s methods, it was ready to copy them. It meant a focus on Clairefontaine, the storied academy to the south-west of Paris, which served as the preparatory centre for the France national team and a coaching hub for elite 13- to 15-year-olds.
Before the opening of Clairefontaine in 1988, France had won only one international tournament. Then came 1998 and it was followed by victory at Euro 2000, the players in those squads having been nurtured at Clairefontaine.
The FA wanted to create something similar and, if its research was wide-ranging, it found that the answers did not lie too far from home. In December 2000 it sent a delegation to Clairefontaine, featuring the then director of technical development, Les Reed, and the technical director, Howard Wilkinson. The fixer had been Gérard Houllier, a former technical director of the French federation who was the manager of Liverpool.
“They told us everything,” Reed said, which raised a simple question. Why? Was it out of pity? It was certainly a demonstration of supreme French confidence.
At the time, Reed was trying to take elements of the French style and instil them into England’s youth teams – the one-touch passing and movement off the ball. The broader idea was to rebuild the English game from the bottom up and the driver had to be a national academy. When the plan for such a centre in Burton-on-Trent was announced in February 2001, Wilkinson merely reinforced the old line about imitation and flattery.
“It is very difficult to look at the French system and find anything about it with which you do not agree and I see nothing wrong in copying something which is so good,” he said. “I think what they do with players, coaches, strategy and how they manage their teams and operate on a long-term basis, is as sound as you can get and I think the proof is there in the results. We hope we have learned and to a degree we have copied.”
The St George’s Park project suffered more than a few false starts. It became marked by missed deadlines and financial problems. After the introspection of the woeful 2010 World Cup campaign under Fabio Capello – and the latest root-and-branch review – Southgate remembers thinking: “If we can’t get a national football centre over the line, then what are we doing?”
Southgate joined the FA in January 2011 as the head of elite development and one of his responsibilities was to drive the development of the new coaching centre. St George’s Park would eventually open in October 2012 and, as with the French equivalent, Southgate has no doubt that it has been a catalyst for what the England team have gone on to achieve on his managerial watch.
“It’s about having a hub for English coaches and young players – helping them to be comfortable in an England shirt,” Southgate has said. “It has complemented the great work that has gone on in club academies.”
Southgate made a revealing comment after England’s last-16 win against Senegal, which set up the generational showpiece with France. “When we look at them at every age group when we are studying all our development teams, they have such depth in every position,” he said.
France remain the benchmark, the team to be toppled. The morning after the Senegal tie, the FA’s head of coaching, Tim Dittmer, gave a detailed presentation to the players on France whom, it emerged, he had tracked for the past two years. It is called preparation. It also advertises a certain respect, a wariness.
Ten years after Clairefontaine opened, France were the world champions. St George’s Park opened 10 years ago. And so, well, you know … What this England team have to embrace is their status as France’s equals. After Southgate’s one game against them as manager – the 3-2 friendly defeat at the Stade de France in 2017 – he said England had to aspire to be more like Didier Deschamps’ team. The belief inside the squad is that now they are.
There has been much made at this World Cup of the new TV angle for penalties, shot from behind the taker. It makes the goal seem smaller, the goalkeeper enormous, the challenge of scoring so much more difficult. But nothing has changed. It is still a penalty.
Southgate and his players cannot be distracted by how France might look, their aura as the defending world champions, the X factor of Kylian Mbappé. England have to focus on their reality, what they have rather than what they lack.
The manager made the same point before the European Championship final against Italy in the summer of last year, which his team would lose on penalties. “We always see what’s good in other countries but we look at the negatives of our own country and yet we have got so much to be proud of and so much talent coming through – in all industries, really,” Southgate said.
The signs are that the message has got through. England’s self‑assurance is rock solid, partly because of what they have lived in reaching the semi-final at the last World Cup and then the final of the Euros. They trust in the process. It was also interesting to hear Harry Maguire’s take on Wednesday. The central defender not only believes that England will win the World Cup; he feels they have to do so. Nothing else will suffice. And Maguire is not a guy who is given to this kind of talk.
The narrative that has bubbled in the background relates to Southgate and whether he will carry on in his role after the tournament. The suspicion is he may not, despite being under contract to December 2024. It is certain that the FA would not want him to walk away – no matter what happens against France. But would they accept him winning the World Cup and waltzing off into the sunset? They would love it. For all concerned, it is about the glory.