Daily Mirror




THE popularity of the England football team has never been higher.

And anyone who thinks the internatio­nal game does not matter is out of touch with the huge support for Gareth Southgate’s side.

There was an 81,388 sell-out crowd to see the Three Lions play minnows Malta at Wembley on Friday night.

And the friendly with five-time World Cup winners Brazil next March was a sell-out even before tickets went on general sale.

Members and fan groups have made England the hottest ticket in town, with even the dead rubber in North Macedonia massively oversubscr­ibed.

The Football Associatio­n had to ask for more tickets, were given an extra 432, and the allocation of 2,332 was snapped up, with nearly 7,000 England travel members applying.

Admittedly, the regularity of internatio­nal breaks does annoy fans of Premier League clubs because of the stop-start nature of football before Christmas.

But England’s pull has never been greater. In the 1970s, 80s and even the 90s, Wembley would regularly be half full for internatio­nals.

A friendly at the stadium against Denmark in September 1988 saw just 25,837 spectators pass through the turnstiles. And for a more direct comparison with Friday’s fixture, England’s 5-0 win over Malta in a European Championsh­ip qualifier in May 1971 attracted a crowd of 41,534.

It was far from being a thriller this time round as England laboured to a 2-0 win but fans still turned up, got behind the team and hundreds of them have travelled to Skopje for tonight’s qualifier with North Macedonia.

There is some frustratio­n that the best England squad for generation­s has not delivered a trophy, but supporters generally vote with their feet.

They stayed away for that 1988 Denmark game against because they were fed-up with Bobby Robson’s faltering reign, but have not lost faith with Southgate.

The hardcore, match-going fanbase remain firmly behind the manager, even if the relationsh­ip reached a low point in the last Nations League campaign when England were booed and Southgate (below) barracked when thrashed by Hungary at Molineux.

England have been incredibly consistent under Southgate.

They remain fourth in the FIFA world rankings and have for five consecutiv­e years been in the top five.

That is comfortabl­y England’s longest run in that position since the rankings began in 1992. The previous best run was six months in fourth and fifth across 1997 and 1998.

They also have an exciting squad, with Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham – injured for this squad – arguably the most in-form player in world football right now.

Harry Kane is scoring for fun at Bayern Munich, Bukayo Saka has been England’s Player of the Year in two consecutiv­e seasons and the squad is littered with talent from Manchester City’s Treblewinn­ing team.

Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish and James Maddison are seen as great entertaine­rs and the Three Lions – along with France – arguably have the best squad of any team going into the Euros.

Southgate accepts he must deliver on England’s promise and turn that potential into success for his seven years in charge to be remembered as a glorious era. England have gone from being perennial underachie­vers to consistent challenger­s who must now take the final step in a tournament.

But it is because of the talent at their disposal and the belief their time has come that England are now the hottest ticket in town.

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