This week, England step up their quest to win the inaugural Nations League. But if they can reign victorious, it won’t be the first trophy they take home from overseas…
For that, we have to go back to 1997. Le Tournoi. England joined Brazil, Italy and hosts France across eight days in June in a warm-up tournament organised by the French Football Federation a year ahead of the 1998 World Cup.
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If England complete their Nations League charge in Portugal this week, beginning with a semi-final against the Netherlands on Thursday live on Sky Sports, the giant metal trophy will join the slightly more humble effort earned at the Parc des Princes 22 years ago as the only two competitions won by England outside the UK.
Netherlands vs England
June 6, 2019, 7:00pm
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Le Tournoi may have comprised little more than a group of round-robin friendly games, but the fondness with which the tournament is remembered by England fans and players is about more than that – and not just for Roberto Carlos’ famous free-kick against the hosts.
“Best tournament I ever went to, this one,” right-back and now England Women manager Phil Neville told Sky Sports. “The pressure was off, it was a more enjoyable tournament to play in,” chimed in defensive colleague Stuart Pearce.
Some England tournament set-ups have been panned as clinical and boring, but Glenn Hoddle’s side touched down in France next to what Neville proclaimed the best golf course he’d ever played on, while centre-back Gareth Southgate likened the trip to the perfect stag weekend, two decades ahead of taking the manager’s job himself.
On the pitch, England’s results drew attention from back home after their impressive Euro 96 campaign, and spirits were high in a young 22-man camp including the likes of David Beckham, Sol Campbell and Paul Scholes, all aged under 23 and enjoying their first real taste of tournament football.
“You think of where England are now, it was a similar period,” Neville explained. “A young, fresh team with a new manager who was tactically astute.”
The intrigue was soon rewarded when England shocked World Cup 1994 runners-up Italy, beating them for the first time in 20 years courtesy of a richly deserved 2-0 win in Nantes, including a goal and assist from eye-catching full debutant Paul Scholes.
“What a pass this is coming up,” said Southgate, still impressed watching back the midfielder’s technique 22 years on. “It’s a decent start for him, then!”
Much like Southgate’s own mix of youth and experience in his Nations League finals squad, there was a fine blend among Hoddle’s – England’s other goalscorer in their opening game was 33-year-old Ian Wright, who would play only six times more after the tournament, and he, among other senior pros, helped keep the younger players in check.
“We had youthful exuberance but with a few old heads too, it was sprinkled with leadership I think,” Pearce said. “The players conducted themselves in the right manner and sent the right messages to the younger players coming into the squad.”
The Three Lions would follow up that impressive win and performance with a touch of fortune in their second game against hosts France, which owed much to a Fabien Barthez blunder from a Teddy Sheringham cross, leaving Alan Shearer to wheel away with his trademark celebration after netting a tap-in for the only goal of the game.
“Where we left the pitch after the Italy game thinking we’ve played really well and we’ve won, that felt more of a smash-and-grab,” recalled Southgate.
By the time of a 1-0 defeat to Brazil in England’s final game, including the likes of Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Romario and Dunga, results elsewhere had already ensured they would be crowned champions regardless of the scoreline in Paris.
Shearer went on to lift the budget football-on-plinth trophy at full time before the squad embarked in a tongue-in-cheek lap of honour.
Even the FA have since lost track of the trophy, despite a number of searches. But perhaps Hoddle and his squad would have taken their celebrations more seriously had they known 22 years on, it would remain their only competition triumph on foreign soil. “It’s disgraceful, really,” said Neville. “England’s been my biggest disappointment in my career.”
Riding the crest of a wave after their World Cup semi-final last year, and some impressive results en route to the Nations League finals, can England finally add another trophy to their sparsely populated cabinet?