SEOUL: England have shrugged off a dire record in the Under-20 World Cup to stand on the verge of ending a 51-year wait for a global title dating back to their World Cup win in 1966.
When England landed in South Korea, they were looking to reverse 20 years of failure in the tournament going back to their last win in 1997, when a 17-year-old Michael Owen scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Mexico.
But on Sunday, the Young Lions are favourites to defeat Venezuela in the final at South Korea’s Suwon World Cup Stadium and lift the trophy for the first time.
England fans are more accustomed to failure: the last time an England’s men’s team lifted any World Cup trophy was in 1966, since when the national team hasn’t reached any major finals.
But after their U19s reached the last four of the 2016 European Championship, and the U17s made last month’s European final, there is increasing optimism about the future.
“We have to go and win to really put our name into the history books of English football,” said coach Paul Simpson, after Thursday’s impressive 3-1 win over Italy in the semifinals.
“I am the proudest man I could ever be. It is just a dream to take an England team to a World Cup final. I was born in 1966 and that is the last time we did it.”
England started the tournament well, defeating six-time champions Argentina 3-0 in their opening game and they then went on to top their group with a win over hosts South Korea.
Then came knockout stage victories over Costa Rica, Mexico and then Italy. The one failure to win was a 1-1 draw with Guinea in the group stage, when England threw away the points with a freak own goal from near the center circle.
If England is triumphant then Liverpool will have played a major part. The city’s two English Premier League clubs, Everton and Liverpool, have provided a number of England’s star players.
Dominic Solanke scored twice against Italy to take his tally to four. The striker left Chelsea in May to join Liverpool on a free transfer. Everton striker Ademola Lookman also scored his third of the tournament.
Everton has provided other impressive performers in right-back Jonjoe Kelly, midfielder Kieran Dowell and forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
Venezuela, still to qualify for a senior World Cup, have impressed in just their second-ever appearance in the tournament.
The South Americans won all three games in their group against Mexico, Germany and Vanuatu without conceding a goal.
They were seconds away from crashing out in the semi-final against South American champions Uruguay, but Samuel Sosa’s injury-time free kick took the game into extra-time and a successful penalty shoot-out.
Goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez was the hero, saving the decisive penalty from Nicolas De La Cruz.
“For the last two-and-a-half years we’ve been thinking that this is our time, telling ourselves that we can be the best and that we need to have faith. We’re so proud at reaching the final.”
But while both Venezuela and England hope that this success in South Korea is an indication of future success at the national level, there is no guarantee.
The last team to win the U20 tournament that subsequently won the senior title was Spain. Yet few of the youngsters who lifted the trophy in 1999 were playing 11 years later when the country won in South Africa.
It could be that it is a better indicator of individual talent. Past winners of the ‘Golden Ball’, given to the best performing player, include Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Paul Pogba.
There is still time for a player from England or Venezuela to join that exalted list.