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England's young World Cup stars have 'golden generation' potential

Free-Kick: Race for Golden Boot heats up as Kane overtakes Ronaldo and Lukaku

Every major tournament has a "golden generation" primed to live up to the hype and deliver on the biggest stage, but how often has the reality been somewhat different?

Portugal had their talented group of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Joao Pinto, Deco and co. but the closest they came to glory was losing the Euro 2004 final to Greece on home soil.

England? David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney -- what a collection of talent -- could never get beyond the quarterfinals of a World Cup or European Championship before that great squad of international under-achievers disappeared over the horizon.

Spain didn't do too badly with theirs, with Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Fernando Torres and the rest delivering two European Championships and a World Cup, but they are something of an exception to the rule.

Unless Belgium, world football's current golden generation, finally hit the jackpot in Russia by winning the World Cup with Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany.

That is, of course, not discounting Argentina's crop of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Javier Mascherano who are arguably facing their last shot at the big one in Russia.

But is there another golden generation out there waiting to become the next big thing?

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If this World Cup has shown us anything, has it given us a glimpse of the new golden generation of England?

Gareth Southgate's young squad -- England's least experienced at a major tournament since the 1962 World Cup -- have impressed far and wide with their performances, potential and refreshing enthusiasm during group-stage victories against Tunisia and Panama so far in Russia.

Thursday's clash with Belgium in Kaliningrad should have been an acid test of their credentials, but such are the permutations and benefits of finishing second in Group G that it has now become a game that will tell us little about the true strengths and weaknesses of this England.

But while the English are probably the last nation to want the burden of being billed as football's next golden generation, is it really so unrealistic to suggest that Southgate may actually be nurturing exactly that?

Greg Dyke, the former chairman of the Football Association, was roundly mocked for suggesting England should aspire to winning the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

A countdown clock towards Qatar at the National Football Centre at St George's Park has since been quietly mothballed, but there are reasons for optimism and belief within the English set-up that something good could be about to happen, with Southgate speaking of the great potential within his pool of eligible players when he announced his World Cup squad last month.

"I feel that the players we've picked are free, but they've got a point to prove," Southgate said. "They're hungry, but they're not where they want to be yet.

"Talking to them individually, they have loads they want to do in their careers. That brings energy.

"I see such exciting players coming through. Some of them, I don't think they know how good they might be.

"That's the beauty of the age they're at. OK, we know what they don't have -- experience -- but what's just around the corner for them? And the ones just beneath them as well. That's what really excites me."

The ages of England's key players is why there is hope for the future.

Harry Kane (24), Raheem Sterling (23), John Stones (24), Dele Alli (22), Jesse Lingard (25), Marcus Rashford (20) and Eric Dier (24) should all still be around in Qatar, with Trent Alexander-Arnold (19) and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (22) also emerging as stars of the future.

Borussia Dortmund forward Jadon Sancho and Manchester City's Phil Foden (both 18) are being groomed by Southgate to form part of the Euro 2020 squad, with Foden already performing on the big stage by winning the Golden Ball award as the best player of the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, which England won.

But potential is one thing, translating it into success and major honours is something entirely different.

Spain managed it, and Germany have also been successful, but so many others have been high on promise and low on delivery.

Southgate, whose realism and refusal to encourage false hope, is perhaps the perfect man to navigate the course for England's emerging talent, admitting last month that expecting too much, too soon, would be foolish.

"We have been competitive against four big countries [Italy, Brazil, Germany and France] in the last few months, but we haven't beaten them and we haven't got to a quarterfinal in the last tournament or a semifinal the tournament before that," he said. "So there is improvement we have to make.

"But I don't want to inhibit things. The team isn't far away from peaking, but they haven't had those experiences yet."

Russia is providing those experiences, but it is what happens next, in the knockout stages, that will offer a clearer signpost for where this England team are going.

They may lose to the likes of Japan or Senegal in the round of 16 and return home having fallen short again.

But if they can maintain the feel-good factor, perhaps England really will have a new golden generation capable of delivering when it matters.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

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