The chants of “FODEN, FODEN!” rang out across the Salt Lake Stadium as England’s midfield dynamo ran the length of the pitch to score his second and England’s fifth; the proverbial icing-on-the-cake.
To describe the scenes that followed as unseen before would be underwhelming; 66,000-plus had come to watch a World Cup final, cagey and controlled in nature. The seven-goal thriller that followed was a whirlwind of fast-paced furious action with hardly any breathing space for the ones that dared to look away, even for a second.
Kolkata had provided the perfect riposte to the nay-sayers of football viewership in the country; that a good game couldn’t excite without the big names. Sure, English Premier League fans may familiarise themselves with the likes of Phil Foden and Callum Hudson-Odoi in the years to come but in the moment, these were 17-year-olds hell-bent on winning their first World Cup.
Electric might be one way to sell the final as England and Spain contributed to the spectacle, throwing any script that may have existed out the window. Both sides refused to pull their punches and went hell for leather once Enrique Caceres blew his whistle.
The ‘Bhadralok’ (gentlemen in Bengali) were certainly confused about their loyalties once Brazil bowed out of the competition. Should they support Spain, who were known for their glitzy passing football or would they opt for England, who had played six of their seven matches at the venue and had produced magical performances including dumping the Selecao out of the tournament.
At the end, every one of the local teens would have gladly body-swapped with Foden as good football won out in the end over any pre-empted favouritism. Towards the end, a few of the Spanish players seemed to have lost their heads as coach Santiago Denia appealed for calm.
At 17, after having led 2-0, did anybody expect the 5-2 loss to be any less than a bitter body blow? The English team did themselves proud once more though as they gave their Spanish counterparts a guard of honour at the presentation ceremony. Do remember that this was a match-up between two bitter rivals with Spain needing a last-gasp equaliser at the Euros to win the tournament on penalties.
Yet, it could have been all so different with La Rojita storming into a 2-0 lead courtesy of a Sergio Gomez double. England’s assured defence with captain Joel Latibeaudiere at the heart of it hadn’t conceded two goals in a single match all tournament. Here, they did so within the space of 30 minutes.
England weren’t going to be denied though, not at this stage, not in the final. Rhian Brewster kick-started the comeback when he headed Steven Sessegnon’s cross in, on the cusp of half-time. Cooper would later admit that the goal made his half-time talk much easier.
What followed in the next 45 was a result of England’s joie de vivre and expressionism combined to devastating effect. Cooper had mentioned that it hadn’t been easy for the 17-year-olds, as they approached day 32 away from home.
Foden, a product of Manchester City Academy, was once again outstanding as he played a hand in three of the four goals after the break, scoring two of them himself. So were Hudson-Odoi on the left flank and the overlapping Sessegnon on the right.
Denia did talk to the press about his tactics after the game, that they had concentrated on attacking down the right and stopping Foden cutting in on the left, with the help of an extra defender if need be. Safe to say that they failed, as the number 7, standing at five feet six, but with the heart of a giant, had torn the Spanish to shreds. The Golden Ball and effusive praise from club gaffer Pep Guardiola followed but the fact that he struck the dagger in the heart of their European rivals on the biggest stage would have pleased Foden.
Yet, the scoreline flattered the English. It was much closer than the 5-2 that flickered on the electronic scoreboard. Denia had said they had been the better team for the first 40 minutes. He was right. In footballing terms, this match had gone 50-40 in favour of the English over the course of the whole 90.
For Spain, it was a bitter blow to digest. Spanish reporters present at the occasion promptly asked Denia what went wrong. You can win the U17 Euros and make the final of the World Cup, but such are the nature of expectations back home that you can hardly catch a break.
At St. George’s Park, the National Football Centre of English FA, it hasn’t been the easiest of times with England often accused of playing boring football at the senior level. Project DNA Blueprint has reaped quick dividends as the U-17 trophy has followed the U20 World Cup and the U19 Euros in one glorious summer.
If this was indeed a glimpse of what new-age English football looks like, cocksure with added swagger but with an identity of their own, the project has reaped immense benefits within three years of its inception.
They are no longer pushovers, you cannot bully them expecting them to crumble at the first hint of pressure. This is England, the class of 2017, a glorious bunch that came to India and out-matched, out-thought and out-played opponents. Their last three scores read 4-1, 3-1 and 5-2. If that does not convince you that footballing greatness has descended upon English shores, perhaps the culmination of the experiment at Qatar 2022 finally will.