England hope Nations League success will lead to Euro 2020 and World Cup glory
PORTO -- When you haven't won a major trophy of any description since 1966, literally anything will do to end that barren run. So England will certainly celebrate success in the inaugural UEFA Nations League if Gareth Southgate's team emerge as winners in Portugal this week.
It may feel like international football's version of the Community Shield or UEFA Super Cup -- nobody would suggest the Nations League will become a rival to the World Cup or European Championship as a trophy that really matters for Europe's major nations -- but you have to be in it to win it, and England's presence alongside Switzerland, Netherlands and hosts Portugal is another sign of their progress as an emerging force.
England's disastrous Euro 2016 campaign, which ended with elimination at the hands of minnows Iceland in the round of 16, seems a long time ago. Now, 12 months on from reaching the World Cup semifinals in Russia when they were eliminated by Croatia, England face another semi when they meet the Dutch in Guimaraes on Thursday (live on ESPN2 at 7.45 BST/2.45 ET) determined to win the competition and use it as a staging post for their Euro 2020 campaign and assault on the next World Cup in Qatar in 2022.
Simply being in the Nations League's final four is a sign of England's development towards becoming a team to be feared on the global stage once again.
Southgate's players topped a group containing Spain and Croatia to make it to the finals, winning impressively against Spain in Seville before securing qualification with a cathartic 2-1 victory at home to the Croatians in November, which went some way to avenging the defeat in Moscow four months earlier.
Beating Spain and Croatia in competitive fixtures were big moments for this England team and they ensured the feelgood factor generated in Russia was extended to this summer.
"It's a new tournament, but it's still a chance to win a trophy in an England shirt," England captain Harry Kane, who is fit to play after recovering from injury at the end of the season, told UEFA.com. "1966 was a long time ago, so we're going to try and take full advantage. We all want to win trophies and have the experience of sharing that with the group and the fans, so it's a huge incentive.
"If we go on and win, it will be another stepping stone to go on to achieve big things in the future. Winning trophies breeds that mentality to go on to do more and more, so it's a chance for us to start early and try to achieve that."
However, despite reaching the semifinals in Russia, England still have some way to go. The World Cup brought an end to a series of hugely disappointing campaigns at major tournaments -- it was the first time England had won a knockout fixture since the 2006 World Cup -- but there was also a sense that Southgate's players fell short against the first top team they faced (Croatia) after navigating a soft route through the latter stages.
Overall though, the campaign in Russia was one of progress and helped to instil a newfound confidence in the side. England now have genuine hopes of success at Euro 2020 and Qatar 2022 on the back of last summer, which is why the Nations League is so important to Southgate's team.
Netherlands, with the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Kevin Strootman and Daley Blind adding experience to the emerging talents of Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek, will pose a tough first hurdle, but England are now stronger than a year ago.
Fifteen players remain from the World Cup squad, and the bulk of them will still be young enough to form the nucleus of Southgate's squad in Qatar.
Kane returned from Russia with the Golden Boot as top scorer, Raheem Sterling has become a contender for this year's Ballon d'Or with his performances for Manchester City and England this season, while 20-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold travels to Portugal having just played his second Champions League final in a row with Liverpool, emerging with a winners' medal this time around.
Experience is growing within the squad and Southgate's players are becoming accustomed to performing, and winning, on the biggest stage -- seven of England's Nations League squad played in the Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham.
There is also a batch of exciting new talent within Southgate's squad: Jadon Sancho (19), Declan Rice (20) and Ben Chilwell (22) have all made the cut for Portugal, while Marcus Rashford (21) plays in his third summer tournament for England.
A win against the Dutch would set up a final against Portugal in Porto on Sunday (live on ESPN at 8.45 p.m. BST/3.45 p.m. ET) and give England the opportunity to end their 53-year wait for international success. And while it won't truly sate the appetite for a major honour, success would be a huge moment for this England team as they prepare for greater challenges ahead.