England’s starting lineup for Saturday’s World Cup qualifier against Scotland was laughable for a country whose top league is the deepest in the world, but maybe understandable. For all the talent in the Premier League, very few stars actually hail from England, and consequently, the national team is forced to field underwhelming starters like Tottenham washout Jake Livermore—who was replaced late in the match with 34-year-old Jermain Defoe—and a back line of just-past-their-prime guys like Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill.
It’s not new news that England lacks an inspiring national team, and the scoreline once again reflected the lineup. Celtic’s Leigh Griffiths scored back-to-back spectacular free kick goals as the match wound down, giving Scotland a clear path to victory.
It was a relative newcomer to the international scene that salvaged a result for England. In the final moments, Harry Kane showed off his glorious first touch, tapping a long cross into the net as Scotland was defensively disorganized.
The next day, a more obscure bunch snagged a better result for England, as the Three Lions’ U-20 team beat Venezuela 1-0 to win that age group’s World Cup. Everton youngster Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored the winner, while Liverpool prospect Dominic Solanke took home the tourney’s Golden Ball. To be fair, recent winners of this competition include the less-than-intimidating Serbia and Ghana, but better to win than to not. And England hadn’t won a World Cup at any age level in the past 50 years.
It hasn’t even been especially close. England has been a nonfactor in every major tournament for over a generation, but on the horizon is potentially the country’s best player pool since Wayne Rooney was a teenager. Newly named captain Kane and his Spurs teammate Dele Alli are, according to one study, two of the most valuable commodities in the game. Beyond them are United wonderteen Marcus Rashford, already with the A team, plus the aforementioned prospects, most of whom are training with the Premier League’s top clubs. And after an embarrassing manager search that reached a nadir when Sam Allardyce left the job after only one game, former U-21 manager Gareth Southgate brings much-needed continuity.
It’s the 23-year-old Kane, more than anyone, who with a solid-enough supporting cast could carry this entire team. Kane scored an unprecedented 29 goals in only 30 games in the Premier League this season, improving on his already fantastic 25 in 38 and 21 in 34 in previous years. He might already be the best goalscorer in the world not playing for Barcelona or Real Madrid, and again, he’s only 23. Kane is one great international performance away from becoming a global household name, and if even only a few of their U-20s pan out, Kane alone could make England a dangerous group to face.
England play France in a friendly on Tuesday, the U-21s begin their European Championship this week, and then the national team spends the fall playing out the last games of a World Cup qualifying bid they already have all but locked up, given the easy group. With the current state of the team, a deep run in Russia next year still seems unlikely. (This is a team that couldn’t get past Iceland in last year’s Euros.) However, England should keep its eyes on Euro 2020, or Qatar 2022. For the first time in a long time, the fortunes of the country that birthed football are looking up.