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The best in the world? Jude Bellingham sparks debate after latest England masterclass

England have an assuredness over their abilities, personified by Jude Bellingham, after a dominant display to sweep Italy aside and qualify for Euro 2024

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Wednesday 18 October 2023 14:26 BST
England beat Italy at Wembley to secure place at Euro 2024

In the celebratory aftermath of England’s qualification for Euro 2024, Jude Bellingham was in little mood to qualify his opinion. The Real Madrid midfielder just went out and said how Gareth Southgate’s side deserved the win over Italy because they were the “much better” team. There was no diplomacy there, just a striking stridency.

It created a very different mood to the last time a match between the two teams led to a tournament qualification, amid scenes that received a new prominence recently due to the David Beckham documentary. That was the 1997 0-0 draw in Rome, which saw England qualify automatically for the 1998 World Cup.

The suffocating tension of that match bore so little resemblance to the stroll of Tuesday’s game, at least for Gareth Southgate’s side. Then, Christian Vieri’s late header caused audible gasps within the Stadio Olimpico, no doubt to match those around the country. The ball went just wide, though, to bring huge emotional release and Paul Gascoigne dancing. The sense of achievement was profound.

It was admittedly a different kind of football and a very different Italy, with some of the intensity influenced by England’s failure to reach USA’s World Cup in 1994, but it was still just qualification – and that for a newly expanded 32-team event. It was also a hugely talented squad, filled by some of the most relentless winners the English game has known in so many of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United stars.

And yet, this current England has something more, as well as much more than just the expectation of qualification. It is more than the experience of reaching the latter stages of tournaments and so many other psychological milestones, like beating Italy, away. It is that assuredness, personified by Bellingham.

There is something genuinely different in the midfielder, a potential missing ingredient for a team that last came within a penalty shootout of victory in this very competition. It is personality as much as performance.

England’s Jude Bellingham celebrates at Wembley (PA)

It points to an England that can be defined by “winners” at the international level, that is able to rise to any given challenge because they are completely devoid of all the old baggage. This is something that Bellingham’s youth represents, as well as his admirable willingness to just go straight to Real Madrid rather than feel he has to go to the Premier League. The mood that fosters also fortifies the confidence of other players with England. That was maybe most visible in Marcus Rashford’s finish, as well as a level of display we haven’t seen so much with his club of late. None of this is to say it’s all down to Bellingham, of course. It’s rather what his mindset represents and rounds off.

“He has been a catalyst,” Southgate said after the 3-1 win. “The way he carries himself and plays on the field shows that, and he’s had that since he walked through the door. Plus the power in his play, that gives us something when you are in tight situations and he can suddenly wriggle out of things… That belief, that willingness to engage with the crowd, they are rare traits in a player so young.”

England have a new golden generation on their hands (The FA via Getty)

They are especially rare in historic England squads, right up to the recent successes. Southgate has navigated his sides through all that from fine man-management of a brilliant generation, where the Football Association have essentially become the latest wealthy western European football nation to industrialise talent production. Bellingham is the sort of player that eventually comes out of that, a final product if you like, but one that often requires a lot of patience. Putting all the pieces in place just gives you the best chance, rather than giving you the certainty of having the best player.

These are, of course, the terms that are already framing the discussion around Bellingham. That isn’t English media exaggeration, either. It was the first question put to Southgate by Italian media. It dominated the late-night football discussion in Spain. The world is talking about Bellingham.

It might yet see England dominate these Euros, in the same way they dominated Italy to get there.

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