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One year on: England’s Young Lions

The divergent paths of Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden

He scores the third goal and suddenly England lead in circumstances that would have been unfathomable just half an hour earlier. Then he scores the fifth goal, the score now 5-2, and a wave of raw emotion washes through the England Under-17 team as they wheel away, unsure where they’re running or who they’re saluting; the realisation hits that they have won the World Cup. The jubilation hits fever pitch. The final whistle blows moments later: right here in this moment, Phil Foden is on top of the world.

The diminutive Stockport-born playmaker stands a world away from home on a balmy night in Kolkata, clutching the World Cup trophy in one hand and the Golden Ball trophy in the other. His sticky England jersey is turned around so it bears “Foden 7” to the cluster of lenses gathering; ticker tape engulfs the presentation stage erected as the 66,000 fans begin to spill out of the Salt Lake Stadium and into the night.

This week marks one-year since that famous triumph in India and what felt like a seminal moment for English football: a second youth World Cup in the same (Indian) summer, decades since the last youth tournament victory in the 80s. To grasp the magnitude of the occasion is requisite to understand the sacrifices another outstanding young England player has made to be so prominent on its anniversary. Just months earlier, the same two teams – England and Spain – had done battle in another final – The European Championships – and in a comparatively discreet affair it was Spain who had then come from behind to defeat the Young Lions from the penalty spot.

In England’s quarter-final game versus the Republic of Ireland, just 879 fans filed into a downbeat Croatian second division stadium on the outskirts of Zagreb to witness Jadon Sancho – a flamboyant winger on the Manchester City books – fire his side to a 1-0 victory.

In the final, with a 2-1 lead to protect and tired legs the first to be jettisoned, Sancho is substituted in the 83rd minute and can only watch on in despair as La Roja equalise three minutes later: powerless to mould extra time with his pace, trickery and pure unpredictability. Sancho picks up a consolatory Golden Ball, visibly a level above his peers, but it is at the World Cup where the true extent of his forfeit becomes evident.

In the off-season period bookended by two major tournaments, Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho take divergent paths. The duo have been so impressive dovetailing in the Manchester City Academy that it catches Pep Guardiola’s eye and they are both invited on a bumper pre-season tour to the US with the first team.

It is Foden that boards the flight across the Atlantic – shining in Houston, labelled a “gift”- whilst Sancho queries his game-time behind such a stockpile of high-grade talent and is omitted from first the tour, and then the club: he signs for Borussia Dortmund in lieu of a new contract. It is here that a history of personal sacrifice and burdensome decisions manifest yet again for a boy who left home at the age of 12 to live in digs at Watford and then at 15 left his family behind altogether to make the move north to Manchester. By 17, Sancho’s Instagram regularly shows off Dortmund’s leading stars cleaning his boots.

It is Dortmund’s executives who hand him the prestigious 7 shirt vacated by the departing Ousmane Dembélé, but, by the same hand, they abruptly decide to recall Sancho from the World Cup after dazzling in the Group Stages. So as England dismantle a strong Brazilian side, Sancho skulks quietly back to Germany and makes his debut for the club against Eintracht Frankfurt.

Now in the present day, Sancho’s rapid ascension barely needs retelling: he leads the assist tables in Europe’s top 5 leagues; has signed a new bumper deal at the Westfalenstadion; has become England’s first 2000-born international player and according to the reputable Transfermarkt is the second most valuable 18-year-old of all time. Number one? Kylian Mbappé.

So when you read the rumours this week of a glorious return to the Premier League, a warming reunion back in Manchester, allow yourself to pour scorn on believing it might be about to happen. The circular narrative is tempting, but why would Sancho sacrifice everything in life, forgo his shot at standing on top of the entire World, simply to return home and re-join the queue, his expectations heftier but his path no clearer?

The closest Foden has come to recreating his Indian summer a year ago? Just down the road in fact, at the Kassam Stadium. There, he gives a virtuoso display capped off by scoring at the car park end in front of a pocket of canny fans trampling the roofs of television vans to catch a view. For now at least, the Oxford shade is all Foden can raise to Sancho’s yellow wall.

The two may have sketched very different journeys so far; as football fans, you hope someday they may conquer the World together.

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