The Rebound: Just how far can boy prince Jude Bellingham take England?
A look back on the latest round of international fixtures, including England, Scotland, and San Marino
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Look, I know this is not particularly original or revelatory, but we seriously need to talk about Jude Bellingham. Forget Birmingham City, if the midfielder continues on his current trajectory, it won’t be long before England commit to retiring his shirt number too. When the Three Lions needed a catalyst against Italy on Tuesday evening, it felt almost inevitable that it would be this elven boy prince of the Bernabeu who provided it - streaking through the heart of the visiting defence like a Roman Candle, upending its decorum, pickpocketing his way to a pivotal spot kick.
Prior to that moment, England had been in trouble. A promising start bled into a sticky frustration, and Gianluca Scamacca’s opener after a quarter of an hour must have had Gareth Southgate staring detatchedly into the middle distance as a zoetrope of previous marinara humblings flashed before his eyes. England have played Italy a freakish amount in recent years, and up until recently, it has not gone well. Then again, up until recently, the Three Lions did not possess the best young player in world football.
Eventually, qualification to next summer’s European Championships in Germany would be sealed with a 3-1 win - Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford producing the goals to enact an assured comeback. But this was a salvation that was willed into being by Bellingham’s precocious majesty. The temptation, of course, is to get carried away, and the predicament involves recognising his obvious genius without slowing this absurd rise by introducing the albatross of unfair expectation. That being said, it is difficult to watch him - to witness him glide and bamboozle and sculpt - and not acknowledge that we could be on the cusp of seeing something truly, truly special.
Elsewhere, the effects of the Buckfast must have worn off around the 16th minute. Before that, Scotland - presumably floating on a heady cocktail of pure adrenaline and (perhaps) the remnants of a caffeinated revelry - did a pretty decent job of bloodying French noses. Billy Gilmour’s predatory finish must have had the Tartan Army believing that they may in fact follow the greatest footballing nation on the planet, and while a subsequent collapse and 4-1 defeat represented something of a sobering blow to the base of the skull, Steve Clarke and his side are still deserving of enormous praise for what they have achieved in recent weeks.
For Scotland to already have booked their place in Germany next summer is nothing short of delirium-inducing, and to do so in the manner that they have - keeping pace with Spain and at the expense of the Erling Haaland Show - only serves to reiterate just how far they have come in a relatively short period of time. Tuesday’s hounding at the hands of the French suggests that there are still refinements to be made, but here and now, coming off the back of a hugely significant international break, celebration is in order. Never have three successive defeats felt so good.
Although, as always, spare a thought for San Marino. Everybody’s favourite mountainous microstate enclave have only ever won one match across the entire breadth of their competitive history, and yet they still went buck wild during last night’s 2-1 defeat to Denmark. It didn’t matter that their equalising goal counted for nothing in the end, or that the parity it restored lasted for a little under nine minutes; no, to this ragtag crew of firefighters, civil servants, and non-league darlings, simply landing a glove on the flank of a side as presitigious as the Danes was enough to bring about scenes of near-nirvana.
From an outside perspective - one sullied by the constant pursuit of international silverware - the struggles of the San Marinese can often feel alien and meagre. There are those who might see their perpetual state of irrelevancy as horrifying, or futile, maybe - like the compulsion of a salmon to leap through white rapids towards the jaws of a waiting grizzly. But in the fleeting moments of unexpected hope - even those that last less than nine minutes - we are all reminded of something bigger and more profound than any automatic qualification to a major tournament could ever be. As schmaltzy as it may seem, sometimes football isn’t about winning or losing, but rather, the undiluted joy of the game itself.
San Marino haven’t tasted victory since 2004. They might not do so again for another 19 years. But at least, if nothing else, they can always say they scored against Denmark.