England, are you Brazil in disguise?
Remember those cliches about "boring, boring England" born out of their superstar World Cup teams? Cast them aside for the moment and, like football-watching Indians have for the last few weeks, celebrate an England that can be both magical and methodical, whose football comes with its aesthetics tied into efficiency. A team made up of many smoothly-working, glittering parts.
On the night they entered their first ever Under-17 World Cup final, we saw the quicksilver opportunism of Rhian Brewster, the inexhaustible work rate of Philip Foden, the stable presence of Curtis Anderson and the creative dexterity and footspeed of Callum Hudson-Odoi. England's 3-1 victory over Brazil was both a carefully-calibrated takedown and a thing of beauty.
Who knows where these young men's professional careers will go but, on a steamy night in Kolkata, young England, white shirts, red stockings, bristling energies, shone.
The difference between the two teams wasn't intention or hunger but the edge of their purpose: England's was gleaming. When Foden, 5ft 7 inches and spindly, with many gamboling runs and raids from the right, was finally substituted in the 87th minute, the applause that rang out from 60,000-plus crowd could have been meant for the entire England team. When the final whistle was blown, Kolkata's Brazil-nuts could do nothing but stand up in appreciation. They may have left the Salt Lake Stadium disconsolate over Brazil's defeat, but England have their respect; who knows, they may even have their voice on Saturday night during the final. Kolkata would have noticed that England had played a formidable rival in the biggest match of their lives, like their coach said, "with heart and soul."
Coach Steve Cooper said his squad could be a force anywhere, anytime. "I believe in our players, and that whoever we play, we can be a match for the opposition, but we have to work hard for that."
England's labour against Brazil never appeared overzealous, its composure always measured. There were moments in the match where England could have been said to have out-Braziled Brazil. In terms of their ability to go up a notch on pace, and whip in chances from the flanks, or corkscrew past defenders and, most importantly, show intensity and presence of mind before goal. Nothing epitomised that more than Brewster, who burst out of a goalmouth clutch in the 10th minute like a bat out of hell, sending his second attempt rocketing past goalkeeper Gabriel Brazao.
Throughout this World Cup Brazil have not conceded a goal in open play but England were to pry that lock open early, and keep hammering at its hinges. Brazil are dangerous when stung and have come back to win twice after conceding an early goal in this tournament. After a spate of early errors, England were able to win back the ball, hold off attacks and keep their defensive shape when the Brazilians went on the counter and equalised. There were snatches of play in which Brazil had maximum possession (55% to 45% in the entire match is also revealing) and several beguiling passing and exchanges, but England shut them down with clinical frequency - Brewster's second goal came just before half-time and was proof that England knew what they could do to Brazil if they controlled momentum, even if not possession.
"You're not going to control a world cup semi-final all the way through," Cooper said, delighted that his team had taken that into account. "I was pleased we recognized it and tweaked some positioning...we knew what we were doing and we controlled our positions."
England appeared aware that Brazil would respond and were prepared. Of the many statistics that have come off the game, there are some that England and its defenders must take maximum pride in: only two corners were conceded through the match. Brazil had ten shots on goal, goalkeeper Anderson blocking three out of three. England had six and Brazao, who has had an excellent tournament, was unable to keep Brewster out. Brazil coach Carlos Amadeu said England deserved to win and that Brazil had played against "a really great" team. "They are well trained, have players of good quality and they could score goals and we couldn't... in other matches, our goalkeeper made saves, the other team made mistakes..."
England are also carrying themselves with grace, as many of the young footballers in the tournament have. As the teams turned up for their line-up and the anthems, the playerswalked side by side up a narrow set of a few steps. Each player reached out to his counterpart, patted his shoulder or shook his hand. After the match was done, Foden sought out the disconsolate, forlorn Brazilian sitting in one half, substitute Helio Junio (the replacement for Vinicius Jr) to console him. The two coaches met to shake hands but ended up hugging each other.
The term England DNA Blueprint may sound like a terribly dull corporate term, but it has translated into a style of football that is reflected across its junior teams and can be mesmeric. Cooper said, "We want to play our way, we will never change it... it is quite identifiable: we want to play with the football, play with purpose and we want to dominate possession. We want to play forward and if we haven't got the ball, we want to get the ball back as quick as we can. Sometimes you have to wait a little bit before that could happen."
In May, Cooper's team had lost the final of the U-17 Euro final to Spain on penalties. On Saturday, the two sides will meet again in a tussle for the World Cup. Maybe for England's U-17s, the wait of another kind will actually be over.