If some England players have found it a little odd to suddenly go back to international football after the most intense three months since the World Cup, it hasn’t been like that for Gareth Southgate. This is the message he’s been drilling into the squad in a “reset meeting” before the team landed in Naples, and he has been encouraged by the “enthusiasm” shown since. This is what it might all be building up to.
Given that the manager almost quit after Qatar, the natural expectation is that this will be his last campaign, and that final opportunity at a first trophy since 1966. Southgate himself almost made a point of refusing to confirm that but many around him have already sensed a different mood, as it feels like that he is taking every decision for now. The answer when asked if this was the “big one” or the “last one” was telling.
“Well, it’s the next one.”
It is also why this fixture against Italy– which Roberto Mancini described as a “Clasico” – might actually be the perfect first match for England.
It is another piece of history to be made, another barrier to be broken, in that way Southgate has always reminded his players about breaking such records before. England haven’t beaten Italy since Le Tournoi in 1997. The choice of Naples as a venue adds an extra edge to that, mind, since Italy themselves haven’t played in the city in a decade and the local support haven’t always been best disposed to the national team for all kinds of sociological reasons.
Southgate pointed to all this as one of the inviting novelties of such a fixture, as he pointed to the football romance of the area, while evading questions about recent trouble.
“In a nutshell it is the type of game we have to start winning, we have over a period but need to do it consistently. We haven’t won here since 1962 and that is another piece of history we have to break down and this team has broken them down in the past.
“I’m excited to be coming here, I’ve never been to Naples before and that history of football here is really rich, the club team are flying and are going to win the league and have a really good draw in the Champions League so are going to be close to winning that as well.”
The history that really weighed over this game, however, was Italy’s victory over England in the Euro 2020 final. It actually skews this fixture even more, since Southgate’s side easily sustained the same level while Mancini’s suffered the worst possible hangover as they failed to qualify for Qatar.
“Every disappointment is motivation and an opportunity to learn and to grow,” Southgate said. “Of course it is additional motivation to us. I am not going to deny that. In actual fact tomorrow will be slightly different teams and a different occasion and we have to be ready for the start of this qualifying campaign.”
The expected team – especially with injuries to players like Marcus Rashford and the progress of a star like Bukayo Saka – will point to England’s long-term strength.
It is something that Mancini envies, especially as he made a point of referencing the lack of Italians in Serie A’s top sides.
The European champions have a point to prove in that regard, but then this is almost a contest between the long term and the short term – or, rather, Italy so quickly going from extreme to extreme.
“We went from a triumph to a huge disappointment,” Mancini said. “Winning the Euros then not qualifying for the World Cup. Football can be cruel, I don’t think the team deserved that.”
If Italy know they should have qualified for the World Cup, though, England know that Euro 2020 was the best opportunity so far. Declan Rice admitted that it still hurts much more than the World Cup quarter-final elimination to France.
The greater frustration for Southgate’s squad is that the last seven years have proved they are broadly a better team than Mancini’s, but Italy had that emotional intensity that comes over a team in a tournament. It can go a very long way, as we’ve repeatedly seen. Lionel Messi and Argentina had something similar in winning the World Cup.
That quality also remains the great variable in international football, that can completely change the complexion of a tournament, regardless of the lie of the land.
That is another variable in this build-up to Euro 2024, in that it feels like a lot of sides – and consequently the entire landscape of international football – are entering a new cycle.
The only constants are arguably France, given their immense strength in depth and status as “the new Germany”, and England. It was just Southgate’s luck that they faced France in that quarter-final.
It is also why Italy can go into this campaign with some optimism despite that World Cup. They are the defending champions. That almost puts them ahead of Spain and Germany, given their poor World Cups and a sense of trying to construct something new. Belgium are on the complete other side of that, as Portugal can now be seen as a rising power with so much talent in their mid-twenties.
Southgate’s side again look one of the few coming to their prime, and in the right profile to win a tournament, but that’s probably been said for three successive tournaments now.
There is even the possibility that England could go from being one of the youngest squads in recent tournaments to one of the oldest, although Southgate did stress the impact of Saka, Jude Bellingham and Reece James.
“We’ve got some exciting players and it’s about looking at their progression, looking at when is the right time to really let them go.”
The team actually feels ready to do that in Naples. Mancini, however, has been getting his squad in similar mood.
It’s a game with so much history, but that is really about the future.