Publication:

The Mail on Sunday - 2021-10-10

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Foden’s target is to go top of world

World Cup 2022

By Rob Draper

IT WAS 20 years to the day last Wednesday when David Beckham scored that free-kick against Greece. Readers of a certain vintage will not need the obligatory reminder about how England, needing a point to qualify for the 2002 World Cup finals, were wretched against Greece and 2-1 down until Beckham seized a last-minute free-kick and curled it into the top corner. Every English football fan alive would be able to recall it and describe it in detail, including Phil Foden, who was 16 months old at the time. ‘I’ve just seen his post on it,’ says Foden, referring to the clip Beckham put up on his Instagram account of him listening to BBC’s Alan Green’s exuberant commentary. ‘I was just watching it back for the first time,’ said Foden. ‘Great commentary weren’t it? And great goal.’ And yet that was England back then, a world away from now. Iconic moments then were forged from a last-minute equaliser that qualified a team for the World Cup finals. It would not get any better for Beckham with England than that. For a 21-year-old with three Premier League titles behind him, a Champions League final, who was shortlisted last week for the Ballon D’Or European Footballer of the Year, having played a significant role in England reaching the Euro 2020 final, it must seem a little odd. This England team, Foden’s generation, are an entirely different proposition to Sven Goran Eriksson’s. ‘We want to be the No1 country in the world,’ said Foden in the run-up to last night’s World Cup qualifier against Andorra. ‘We’re really fighting for that.’ Had Beckham said that, it would have been a soundbite unsupported by the national team’s record. When Foden says it, it comes on the back of a World Cup semi-final and the Euro 2020 final. There was a moment in the opening minutes of England’s campaign last summer when a peroxide blond attacking player sprinted into space with the ball and, with impudence of youth, shot straight for goal, hitting the post. Foden’s introduction to Euro 2020 against Croatia was unforgettable: the blond hair, the exhilarating acceleration, the mesmerising ball control. Paul Gascoigne was reborn and we were back at Wembley for Euro 96. But they could hardly be more different, Gascoigne the compulsive extrovert, Foden, quiet and observant when in groups outside of his family. The obsessions he does share with Gascoigne, other than football, is a love of fishing. When City won the 2018 Premier League title and Foden had just broken into the team, captain Vincent Kompany rang to invite him to the impromptu party the team had organised. Foden declined: he was going night fishing with his dad. There was an intriguing cameo the other week after Chelsea had beaten Manchester City 1-0 at Stamford Bridge. An hour after the final whistle, when the players were walking along the pitch-side to leave, Foden and his City team-mate Jack Grealish found themselves w i t h C h e l s e a ’s Mason Mount. Ben Chilwell joined them and for 10 minutes they chatted like old friends. Liverpool versus Manchester United circa 2001 it was not. Imagine Gary Neville and Paul Scholes palling up with England team-mates Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard post match. This is Southgate’s greatest achievement as England manager. No one has succeeded in transforming the culture like he has, so that England players want to meet up. Five years ago, he took this job on a caretaker basis and in the chaos that had followed the debacle of Euro 2016 and Sam Allardyce’s hiring and sacking in 67 days, Southgate inherited a broken institution, where players were suspicious of each other and some reluctant to play. Now they are a group of ambitious and talented young men, united in purpose whose results demand they be taken seriously. And if Foden continues to shine, England will too.

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