Football might not be coming home just yet, following England’s World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia on Wednesday, but it will soon be returning to its heartlands in at least one sense.
The next European Championship, in two years’ time, has been designated a uniquely pan-continental affair involving 12 host cities in 12 different countries but, crucially, Wembley is the headline venue.
The 90,000-seater north-west London stadium is to stage seven matches in total, including the final and both semi-finals, meaning that England could play the majority of their games in front of a home crowd.
It is the closest thing England will have experienced to hosting a tournament since the heady summer of Euro ‘96 and, as such, will be seen as a major opportunity to end a 54-year wait for silverware.
English football fans should need no reminder of the inspirational effect a home World Cup or European Championship can have, from the heroes of 1966 to the semi-finalists of 30 years later.
Major tournament history is littered with other examples of teams raising their game on such occasions, with host nations providing six of the 20 World Cup winners and three of the 15 European champions.
The home effect was evident in Russia this summer, where Stanislav Cherchesov’s team belied their status as the lowest ranked team at the tournament with a run to the quarter-finals.
If they qualify, England can expect to play two of their three group stage matches at Wembley as well as, should they make it that far, the semi-final and final.
Home advantage is far from the only reason to fill England fans with hope for Euro 2020. The team’s World Cup performances, allied to further encouraging signs within the national set-up, bode very well.
Reaching the last four saw Gareth Southgate’s young squad exceed expectations, and there is every reason to believe they can grow as a team before their next major tournament.
They have accumulated experience of winning knockout ties – something not managed by an England team in more than a decade – and – for the first time ever at a World Cup – a penalty shoot-out.
There aren’t many medals among this group yet – only 11 Premier League titles between the 23 players – but that number might reasonably be expected to grow in two years.
They will also benefit from a renewed affection from the English public, who had grown apathetic to the repeated failures of much-vaunted previous generations.
Perhaps the most compelling grounds for optimism at Euro 2020 and beyond, however, is that England can make a strong argument for having the best batch of emerging football talent anywhere on the planet.
The Football Association’s establishment of a national base for all age-group teams, St George’s Park in Burton-on-Trent, and a common set of playing principles reaped spectacular rewards last year.
England’s under-17s won the World Cup and finished second at their Euros; the under-20s won their World Cup; the under-19s won their Euros; and the under-21s reached their Euro semi-finals, only losing on penalties.
On top of that, England underlined their supremacy by winning the Toulon Tournament – an invitational yet highly-regarded event for under-20 sides – for a third year in a row last month.
Prospects such as Liverpool striker Dominic Solanke, Everton pair Ademola Lookman and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Fulham teenager Ryan Sessegnon and Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho are among the stars of those successes and realistic contenders to feature in 2020.
The even younger Rhian Brewster of Liverpool and Manchester City’s Phil Foden are longer shots but also tipped for future England stardom.
It was Southgate who started that Toulon hat-trick, steering England to glory in 2016 during his spell in charge of the under-21 team. Indeed, it enhanced his credentials when the senior job came up months later.
Since then he has shown his affinity with young players by giving them opportunities – sometimes despite irregular Premier League involvement, in the case of Solanke, star of the under-20 champions.
Mainstays of Southgate’s team in Russia, such as captain Harry Kane, John Stones, Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli and Jordan Pickford played under him with the under-21s.
He cast off stalwarts such as Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart and put his faith in the vigour and energy of youngsters who have come through the ranks playing a way that all concerned are now steeped in.
Southgate has proven himself to be the ideal man to nurture England’s burgeoning talent base to senior international success. This World Cup may have come too soon, but 2020 could be the year the planets align.