This is obviously a work of fiction, and it’s all in the name of fun. Enjoy!
It’s December 2010. The FIFA Executive Committee has just announced that Russia and Qatar will host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The decisions send shockwaves through the football world as suggestions of bribery and corruption hit FIFA and the bidding process. Over the next few years a great deal of scrutiny is placed on the bids, and also on Qatar – the tiny nation on the Arabian Peninsula enjoys tremendous wealth, but there are question marks over LGBT rights in the deeply conservative nation, and during the course of constructing football stadiums it is alleged that many workers die due to unsafe conditions.
From a purely footballing perspective, holding a World Cup where the average temperature in during normal World Cup time (June/July) is between 31C and 42C is unfeasible. FIFA’s response was to shift the tournament to a four-week period in November and December, an act that would be destined to disrupt the major European leagues.
Despite protests about the corruption, human rights and the disruption, the World Cup would go ahead in Qatar. It couldn’t be called ideal, but from the point of view of the football, it was inevitable. Associations, managers, players and fans would all have to find a way to adapt. With this in mind, how would England fare? The Euro 2020 runners-up had surprised many by going as far as the final of their last major tournament, but the World Cup would be in entirely different circumstances.
“We held a friendly in Iraq, because I wanted to get the players used to the heat and conditions. We went out to Doha (the capital of Qatar) to train as early as we could, we needed to acclimatise.” Manager Ben Berwick recalls previous World Cups where England took a flippant attitude to the local environment. “We could have prepared better for a number of tournaments in the past.”
The heat could have been worse, but nonetheless it was clear Qatar had the potential to provide shocks. Uruguay just barely scraped by Jamaica in the opening game of the tournament; Qatar met expectations with a 7-0 hammering at the hands of Algeria. It seemed Group A would be easy to predict.
Group B saw heavyweights Spain and Brazil play out a 1-1 draw; Scotland twice came from behind to hold South Korea. In Group C Portugal had to hold on to ward off a determined Japan in a 2-1 victory, whilst Argentina struck late to take a point against Turkey.
England’s group D produced a draw between Egypt and Iran, with both sides scoring within the last ten minutes, and then it was England’s turn. There had been pre-tournament rumblings of surprise at some of Berwick’s choices, and with that came the prospect of sharpened knives. Foden, Grealish and Maguire all missed the plane to Qatar; Mount, Dele Alli and Eric Dier were in. Trent Alexander-Arnold missed out through injury.
Form – both over the last few games before the tournament and over the course of the disrupted 21/22 season – guided Berwick’s decisions, along with fitness.
“I couldn’t and wouldn’t pick players based on reputation alone. They had to be playing, and they had to be playing well. I knew some of my choices wouldn’t be popular but the players and I had to shut all that out. The media noise can be a headache, and all too often the English press is our worst enemy, so we had to tune them out and do a job.”
England’s squad wasn’t lacking in experience, but there was also a lot of youth. Dean Henderson, Jordan Pickford and Aaron Ramsdale would be the goalkeepers to make the flight. Dier, John Stones, Joe Gomez, Fikayo Tomori, Kieran Trippier, Ben Chilwell, Luke Thomas and Aaron Wan-Bissaka made up the defence. Mount, Jordan Henderson, James Ward-Prowse, Kalvin Phillips, Raheem Sterling, Alli, Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham made up a midfield mixing strength with pace and skill. Up front, Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford were the most likely pairing, with Danny Ings and Dominic Calvert-Lewin going along as the other two forwards.
The Netherlands were up first for England.
“Holland had to be respected. They sported players like Wijnaldum, Depay, De Jong and Kluivert, and they possessed quality and confidence, so we had to be at the top of our game.” Berwick reminisces, sipping a hot cup of tea from behind the old walnut desk in his study. “We had a tough game on our hands, but I had belief in our own ability.”
It was a belief to be rewarded. A neat finish to the near post squeezed in by Rashford gave England the lead as the first-half began to wind down, though a corner saw Wijnaldum equalise in stoppage time. Nine minutes into the second-half a neat ball from Jordan Henderson found Marcus Rashford, who ran in to put the ball straight by Paes for the winner. England had the perfect start to their campaign, albeit Phillips took a knock that would rule him out of the rest of the tournament.
Other matches followed. Colombia beat Portugal, Greece held Italy to a draw, and Germany overcame reigning champions France. After the first round of games the tournament was finely poised, though the hosts confirmed their group stage exit with a 4-0 defeat against Uruguay as the second set of fixtures began. Jamaica beat Algeria despite having a man sent off to book their place in the knockout stages, a great moment for the Caribbean side.
Group B brought a terrific performance from Spain in a 6-0 victory over South Korea, and Scotland produced an amazing performance to draw 0-0 against Brazil, keeping their destiny in their own hands. In Group C Turkey comfortably beat Senegal 4-1, whilst Argentina drew for the second time, this time against Japan, throwing away their 1 goal lead.
England’s second game would be against Egypt. Having won their opening game, the mood in camp was pretty good. “We knew a win would give us a place in the next round. We also knew Egypt couldn’t be taken lightly, so we had to professional and focused and do our jobs.” Berwick smiles. “I hadn’t expected us to do the job in the way we did.”
Indeed. It was a perfect ten for England. Kane got his first goals of the World Cup, getting England’s first after 13 minutes. Henderson added a second just two minutes later. On 26 minutes Rashford netted his third of the competition, and Mason Mount scored a worldie of a freekick after half an hour. Egypt were powerless to resist a hungry England, and it was 5-0 when Sameh Salah scored an unfortunate own goal.
It was 6-0 before the break, with John Stones getting in on the act, and after right after the break Rashford had his second of the game and fourth of the World Cup. On 64 minutes he completed his first World Cup hat-trick, Harry Kane got his second with a minute to go, and Wan-Bissaka scored with a nice, powerful strike low and to the ‘keeper’s left to get England’s 10th goal of the night.
“It couldn’t have been better, at least from our perspective!” Berwick recalls. “We had a real desire to get forward, to impose ourselves on the game and make a statement, but I never expected 10 goals! Rashford was superb, Mount’s goal was sensational, and our overall game was ruthless.”
Elsewhere, Scotland ended up going home early, beaten quite comfortably by Spain.
England’s final group game against Iran seemed positively mundane in comparison. A 4-0 win with Rashford scoring all the goals placed Rashford on nine for the competition, then it was a case of waiting to see who England would face in the 2nd Round.
The most unlikely of foes awaited. A hopeful ball towards the box from Dia was missed by Argentine defender Foyth and fell to Diatta to lash home from short range with two minutes to go. The goal guaranteed Senegal would progress to the knockout stages and sent Argentina out. For the legendary Lionel Messi, his last World Cup would end in torment; the playmaker, so often lauded for his ability to influence games, had failed in his final opportunity to guide Argentina to glory. He cut a despondent figure as he and his teammates trundled off the pitch, whilst Senegal cheered on their unexpected heroes.
There were other surprises. Portugal went home in the group stages, ending up behind Denmark and group winners Colombia. Greece topped Group F, finishing ahead of Italy. Ireland reached the knockout stages, as runners-up to Belgium in Group G. Overall though, most of the likely suspects had reached the 2nd Round.
Harry Kane remembers the warnings. “We knew we had to respect Senegal, they’d beaten Argentina and earned their place in the next round. There would be no easy games, and we had to be focused and determined and take each game as it came.”
Some teams didn’t show their opponents enough respect. Turkey eliminated Holland, whilst Ireland took France to extra-time. Spain narrowly overcame a spirited Jamaica. England themselves were nearly punished for complacency against Senegal.
Rashford got England off to a good start. Chilwell had played a high ball up to the halfway line for Kane to flick on with his head, finding Rashford, whose pace and footwork allowed him to carry the ball forward and into the box, where he fired his shot across the Mendy’s goal and into the bottom corner. On 21 minutes Alli, lurking on the left flank, played the ball across the floor to Kane, who skimmed the ball into the path of Henderson, who tucked it away with aplomb. It seemed that England had matters under control, but on the stroke of half-time Keita Balde got down England’s left and into the box, where he screwed the ball back for Diatta to rifle the ball into the back of the net.
The scores were levelled on 59 minutes when Kieran Trippier brought Diatta down on the edge of the penalty area. There was a bone of contention as to whether it was truly a foul, but VAR confirmed it, despite England’s protests. Trippier was booked for his troubles, and Balde converted the penalty.
“It was frustrating, because we’d taken our foot off the gas and allowed them back into the game. We’d gotten a bit cocky and we’d paid for it.” Jordan Henderson remembers. “None of us were happy with ourselves.”
There was an opportunity to win it late on. Harry Kane took a penalty in added time, but blasted it wide, much to the joy of opposing fans. Extra-time would follow.
“No one wants extra-time. It’s bad enough to be playing in hot conditions, but then to face another half an hour of running around on tired legs… it’s when mistakes can happen.” Berwick offers a weak smile. “We had been rattled, but now we had to settle and go again.”
Go again they did. On 97 minutes Trippier got down the right-hand side and into the box, playing the ball back to Sterling, who slammed the ball home with some serious power. Rashford then scored almost immediately from the start of the second period, collecting Henderson’s straight-forward pass, turning and striking the ball with real venom from outside the box, sending the ball high to Mendy’s right. The game ended 4-2, though Kane had a goal chalked off late on as well.
The quarter-finals beckoned. England would face none other than five-time world champions Brazil in a mouth-watering clash, though Italy against France would prove to be the tie of the round. The French, armed with some exquisite talent, led after just 15 minutes, courtesy of Mbappe. A swift counter-attack saw Griezmann find Mbappe in acres of space, and the pace of the forward carried him into the box to slice the ball home across Donnarumma’s body. On the stroke of half-time Anthony Martial doubled France’s advantage. It seemed the French enjoyed complete control of the game.
Only the Italians refused to know they were beaten. Substitute Berardi pulled one back on 67 minutes. An Immobile penalty on 87 minutes levelled the tie. A clearly unnerved French side were suddenly on the ropes, despite having dominated possession. Then, in the sixth minute of added time the reliable Tonali played Chiesa into the box, who played the ball across the goal to the unmarked Zaccagni, who slotted home to send Italy into the semi-finals.
Elsewhere Spain were beaten 4-2 by Turkey, and Greece thumped Germany 4-1. No one would have predicted such results, but with players from all over the world getting to develop in top leagues, is it any wonder that the gap between nations is shrinking? Berwick isn’t surprised. “We often hear about the big nations and the smaller ones, but there are no easy games anymore. The so-called smaller countries are learning, and will carry on learning. Soon these ‘surprise’ results won’t be surprises.”
From England’s point of view the semi-final against Brazil was maybe the most straight-forward of all their games. England restricted Brazil to just two shots on target in the entire match, nullifying the attacking talent of Firmino, Coutinho and Vincius Junior quite effectively.
On 20 minutes Sterling scored a contender for goal of the tournament. Ben Chilwell cut in from the left and no one stopped him from continuing his run towards the box, and then he floated a delightful ball across to the on-rushing Sterling, who struck the ball on the volley, catching it perfectly – the ball sailed beyond Alisson’s reach, and a few minutes later Alisson was fishing the ball out of the net yet again. Sterling was the creator this time, running menacing at Brazil’s nervous defence before poking the ball to Kane on the edge of the area, whose powerful low shot went beyond Alisson’s left to nestle in the corner. England saw out the remainder of the game without too much trouble, and in fact could have scored more.
The mood, which had been pretty positive anyway, was now buzzing with energy.
“We were pretty pumped.” Chilwell takes in the lights of the interview setup. “To beat Brazil is a tremendous achievement, especially for us. It gave us a bit of extra confidence, especially as we played so well against them.”
A third consecutive semi-final appearance had now been earned, following Russia 2018 and Euro 2021. Standing between England a second successive major final were Greece.
Unfancied Greece had been unfancied before, in Euro 2004, when they’d stunned everybody to win the competition. They’d battered Germany, topped a group featuring Italy and they had played some good football. Berwick was keen to make sure the team didn’t get complacent, as they had against Senegal.
“I hate to overuse the expression ‘be professional’, but that’s what we needed to be against Greece.” He remarks. “They would be up for it, so we had to match their enthusiasm and play to our strengths.”
Greece were certainly up for it, and England seemed nervous. A scrappy game saw Alli poke home from short range after a scramble in the box on 54 minutes, and that goal settled the game. England were into only their second ever World Cup Final.
The beautiful Lusail Iconic Stadium, filled to its 86,250 capacity, would play host to the final. England would line up against Italy, who had beaten Turkey on penalties following a 1-1 draw. The atmosphere was electric.
“You had two sets of passionate football fans. Two groups of determined players. Italy had in Roberto Mancini a talented and astute manager. This was going to be a huge challenge, but one we were looking forward to.” Berwick had steered the squad to the final, but could England deliver the greatest sporting prize in the world?
The game could be defined as a tale of two goalkeepers, with Donnarumma playing extremely well, denying Rashford again and again over the course of the first-half. At the other end Dean Henderson had a few saves to make of his own, including a particularly important one on 19 minutes.
“Harry (Kane) had conceded a penalty, and I felt the eyes of the nation watching me.” Dean Henderson remembers. “I saw Ciro (Immobile) standing there, and I met his eyes, and I kept staring at him. When he hit the ball I instinctively went to my left, and it paid off.”
Henderson’s save was crucial, and back home in England packed pubs and clubs erupted into noisy celebration. They got louder five minutes later when Rashford got on the end of a slightly under-hit Sterling pass, ran into the box and slotted beyond Donnarumma from close range. England led 1-0 at half-time, though to many it should have been 2-0, following a disallowed goal for Kane.
“We were in deeply uncharted waters.” Berwick says. “The tension was physical, we were all doing everything we could to keep focused during the break.”
For 68 minutes England kept up their concentration, then one tiny lapse, one small failure on the part of the defence to close down Pobega and stay close to Immobile allowed a neat threaded pass to find Immobile, who fired low and hard to Henderson’s right. Italy had parity, in a game defined by parity.
It didn’t last too long. Eleven minutes from the end Rashford collected a good ball from Jordan Henderson and dinked the ball over Donnarumma. It struck the underside of the bar and could have bounced anywhere – it bounced over the line to restore England’s lead. Cue more beer flying everywhere back in England.
From there it was a case of holding on, though England were more than up to the task. Long balls were dealt with by Dier. Wan-Bissaka shut down any attempts to get down England’s right flank. Jordan Henderson dictated what happened in the middle of the park, alongside Mount. In fact, at one stage, with only minutes remaining, England had the ball and were virtually camped out in Italy’s half, a perfect position to be in. The Three Lions closed out the game and for the second time they were world champions.
The performances had been strong, at times ruthless, and peppered with a number of amazing demonstrations of skill and hard work. Marcus Rashford won both the Golden Ball for best player (Raheem Sterling came second) and the Golden Boot for top goal scorer (13). Dean Henderson took home the Golden Glove (four clean sheets). Eight England players were in the World Cup Dream Team. England won all seven of their matches. They hadn’t always played brilliantly, but they’d also shown a lot of fight and a lot of quality.
Back home, the mood was beyond euphoric. With only a week until Christmas, it felt to many that Christmas had in fact started early. For a country beleaguered by covid back in 2020 and 2021, this was a release of so much pent up frustration and agony, and not just in a footballing sense. The joy of welcoming triumphant champions was something that many England fans had never witnessed; for those who recalled the 1966 victory, a distant memory suddenly became real again.
“When we landed at Heathrow, to so many smiling faces, young and old alike, waving flags and singing loud, it brought tears to my eyes.” Berwick smiles again. “For all of us, it will be the proudest moment of our careers, that’s for sure.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Marcus Rashford. The Manchester United forward had found himself taking a lot of stick for his political and social activism, but he left his critics and his haters floundering with each new goal. Raheem Sterling has taken more than his fair share of criticism, with some of the jibes in his direction holding an undercurrent of racism about them. His performances gave his doubters nowhere to hide. The two of them sank to their knees as the final whistle blew that night in Qatar, perhaps feeling as much relief as they did delight and pride. They’d certainly earned their moment.
The whole squad had earned their moment. The media, often harsh on England, had been questioning the wisdom of leaving Grealish and Foden at home. Now they were left with no choice but to respect what Berwick had done, as well as honouring the players selected for the tournament. The fans didn’t let the typically cold December weather stop them from lining London’s streets as the players transported the famous solid gold trophy via open-top bus to Wembley. The celebrations went on for days, creating a carnival atmosphere so sorely needed in post-pandemic times. With luck, England won’t have to wait another 56 years to repeat the scenes!