Fear for England…hope for England

Photo: PA

WITH the World Cup draw on the horizon, it’s worth looking at England’s prospects for Russia 2018, particulary given recent form in major tournaments, which has deteriorated over the past few years. Whereas the last eight was always a realistic aspiration, the events in Brazil and France suggest England are no longer guaranteed a place in the second phase of the World Cup or European Championship.

Gareth Southgate, who has the onerous task of constructing a credible national team in an age when England’s major clubs became multi-national squads of highly-paid imports, has rightly focused on the need for “tournament play”, recognising that it is not always the most talented team that comes out on top. The merits of a “team for a job” were evident in 2004 (Greece), 2006 (Italy) and 2016 (Portugal) and to some extent, you can go back as far as 1966 and England’s own moment of glory to see that a carefully built team, not necessarily the most skilful, can become World Cup winners. Sir Alf Ramsey was the first England manager to select a team that could carry out his ideas around genuinely competing in a World Cup, something the country had failed to do in 1950, 1954, 1958 and 1962.

Sir Alf Ramsey knew that his 1966 team wasn’t necessarily the best in the world, but was a team built for a purpose

England will go to Russia with low expectations and the chances are they will come up against one of the leading teams in the group stage.  One of the problems with the modern qualification process is that it does not prepare a team for the real thing as there are too many weak sides and the competition is over-blown and attritional. Hence, it is rare that genuinely decent teams come up against each other. This not only means dozens of lop-sided contests, but it can also create a false picture of a country’s relative strength. England are a case in point – champions of the meaningless game, flat-track bullies in qualifying groups. The barometer of national opinion has, too often, been artificially inflated by wins against Balkans and Baltics and weak home internationals. However, this time it is different as people can now see through the smoke and mirrors.

Southgate is aware young talent in English domestic football is not getting its chance, but he also knows there are some gems in the youth and intermediate levels of the England set-up that, unless they get exposed, will be stymied, or at least end up playing in the Eredivisie or somewhere else in Europe. Somehow, the Football Association has to change this and impose some form of quota system that enables promising young England players the chance to blossom. It may seem strange and an indictment on the English game, but the appearance of Tammy Abraham, Joe Gomez and Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the national squad not only allows players to be rewarded for their efforts, but may also be Southgate’s way of highlighting their potential to the public who, in turn, may start to exert some influence on clubs to show some responsibility to the overall health of the game.

Meanwhile, England have a huge task on their hands if they are to improve their showing in major competitive football. Their record in the 21st century is, frankly, poor. They have pulled off some credible victories in friendly matches, but when it comes to games that truly count, they fall short of the highest level, and it is a deficit that seems to be growing – the fact that a 0-0 draw with Costa Rica was blessed relief after two defeats in Brazil and the debacle of the last-16 defeat against Iceland in France indicated a further decline in status. But it has been coming for quite a while and it should be no surprise for even the most dedicated cross of St. George standard bearer.

It’s hard to think of a genuine “show of strength” by England in the finals of the World Cup since 1966

England’s post-1970 history in major competitions has been characterised by over-expectation, carelessness – failure to qualify in 1974, 1976, 1978, 1984, 1994, 2008 – and lack-lustre displays in the final stages. It is a struggle to come up with what one might call a “show of strength” from England in the finals of either the World Cup or European Championship. Euro 1996, when England were hosts, saw a very impressive 4-1 group win against the Dutch, but since then, there’s been precious little to enthuse about. As soon as England meet someone with any pedigree, they capitulate – Argentina (1998), Brazil (2002), Portugal (2004 and 2006), Germany (2010), Italy (2012). It’s a pattern that started in 1970 when they threw away a two-goal lead against West Germany and the decline [hopefully] peaked in 2014 and 2016. It is no longer a major surprise to lose to a country like Iceland, an island with 200,00 people and modest footballing resources.

Furthermore, England’s record against the world’s leading nations in competitive football is not awe-inspiring[1]. The win rate against Argentina and Poland, two of the first pot seeds, is 60% and 58% respectively, but apart from that, the figures are quite revealing: Brazil 0%; Germany 30%; Portugal 22%; France 29%; Belgium 33%; Russia 33% and Spain 50%. The average England rate among the first pot is 33%. The loss rate is 27%, but the draw rate is 40%, which is not a positive for England as in the knockout stages, this would mean a penalty shoot-out and everyone knows what happens next.

It would be nice to believe that Iceland was something of a wake-up call for England in the same way that Germany’s early century decline was the catalyst for huge reassessment of their game. Now the Bundesliga is the envy of the world, the national team won the World Cup in 2014 and the Germans will again be among the favourites for 2018. Spain have had their moment in the sun, but for many years, they were the great underachievers, rarely punching their weight in World Cups.[2] They have two of the world’s biggest and most influential clubs to call upon. France is the marketplace for talent and Les Bleus are a bit of a force once more. Of the “big five” European countries (England, Germany, France, Spain, Italy), England and Italy, the most addicted to importing foreigners and ignoring local produce, have the least effective national teams. Surely no coincidence?

Russia 2018 is unlikely to change that perception, certainly not in Italy’s case, but that does not mean the World Cup cannot be a good opportunity to further develop youngsters for the next challenge – Euro 2020 and Qatar 2022. Gareth Southgate might not have been everyone’s choice or idea of an England manager, but he may just have hit upon a novel idea – blooding young players – that other nations discovered some time ago. Are we actually at the start of a new, better and more realistic era? Maybe.


[1] Competitive games only – qualifying competitions of the World Cup and European Championship plus finals games. Penalty shoot-outs discounted, score after 120 minutes.

[2] Brian Glanville script for Goal, the FIFA film of the 1966 World Cup.

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