The wait goes on. Sixteen years, two days and a record 15 matches have now passed since England last won at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, and few of the intervening setbacks will have stung like Sunday’s 2-2 draw against Iraq. The Three Lions had, after all, been 2-0 up with 15 minutes remaining, and were still leading three minutes into injury time when Ali Adnan popped up to prolong their misery.
The responsibility for this remarkable record is, of course, shared across several generations of U-20 players. Current captain Conor Coady, for example - making his tournament debut against Iraq - was just four years old when Michael Owen scored the winning goal in England’s last triumph at this event, way back in 1997. As a consequence, the Liverpool midfielder insists that ending his nation’s winless sequence, while important, is of lesser significance than securing the results that guarantee a spot in the last 16.
“We’re aware of the record,” he told FIFA.com, “but it’s not something that bothers us massively. I don’t think the pressure or the desire on our side is any more because of that hanging over us. Our main goal at the tournament is just to do well, to go as far as we can, and the record honestly isn’t the biggest thing on our minds. This is a different group of players and hopefully we can be the ones to put that whole thing to bed.”
It looked for much of Sunday’s match that Coady would himself be the man to end the winless sequence and finally emulate Owen, his Liverpool predecessor, by becoming an England match-winner. “I would have loved that, of course,” he said, reflecting on his headed opening goal. “It would have been great if it had worked out that way. But I’ll take anyone scoring if we can get the win against Chile on Wednesday. All that matters is the result now.
“We’ve got to look on the positive side of things. It’s tough to do that right now, but look at it this way: we’ve not been beaten. We’re still in with a really good chance of going through if we can build on some of the good things we did today. I thought we looked really good in the first half especially, moved the ball well and should have been further ahead than we were. We’re massively disappointed, especially to lose the win in the way that we did, but we’ll be back up again when the Chile game comes around.”
The mere fact that England scored – not once, but twice – is one of the positives on which Coady and his team-mates can draw. In fact, they doubled in the space of 11 minutes the number of goals their Three Lions predecessors had managed over their previous 16 matches at this U-20 event. And, according to the captain, there should be more to come.
“There are definitely goals in this team,” he said. “Right through the midfield, you have players who can pop up with a goal or two, and Harry [Kane] leads the line well and is always a threat himself. We should have had a few more goals to be honest. If we can take the opportunities that come our way against Chile, we’ll hopefully get the win we’re looking for.”
That, of course, will be easier said than done against a talented Chilean side full of confidence and individual ability. Coady and his team-mates watched the closing stages of the South Americans’ 2-1 victory over Egypt and saw more than enough to be assured of a demanding encounter in Antalya’s intimate Akdeniz University Stadium.
“They look sharp, nippy, technical – typical South American team – and they’ll be flying after getting such a big win,” said the England midfielder. “But we feel that we’re ready for them. It’s another new experience for us, and this is what a World Cup is all about. I was saying to the boys the other day that we’ll probably never play against Iraq again in our careers, so it’s a special opportunity we have here to experience all these different styles of football. It’s a learning curve for us all and I’m sure we’ll all go back home as better footballers.”
That seems guaranteed. The question is whether they can do what no other England team since Owen and Co has managed, and return not only as superior players - but as winners.