DOUBTLESS the euphoria that greeted England’s penalty triumph over a Latin side schooled in the dark arts will have raised expectations beyond the wildest dreams of Gareth Southgate and, indeed, the nation. When England embarked on this “journey” (everyone is on a journey these days), a place in the quarter-finals would have been seen as “job done” by a squad relatively inexperienced in “tournament management”, but the way the draw has evolved gives them hope of becoming an unlikely success story.
A better side than England would have had Colombia dead and buried long before the added-time equaliser that sent the tie into a tedious 30-minute period that was a good advertisement for “straight to penalties”. There’s something very 1990 about this England campaign, a team extracting a lot from their resources, a down-to-earth manager and a striker on form (for Lineker read Kane). As in 1990, momentum is building.
By beating Colombia, England successfully confronted one of their hang-ups, the penalty shoot-out. A relief for the country and something very Stuart Pearce for Gareth Southgate. The heartbroken defender of 1996 cannot redeem himself on the field, but at least his charges can bury the hoodoo. The pitfall for England now is not taking Sweden seriously enough. If they can overcome a notoriously difficult Scandi-noir team, England could beg, steal and borrow their way to the final.
The fact is, though, Sweden, Croatia and Russia could quite easily all do the same. Russia may be one of the least equipped of all host nations, but such is the shape of this interesting World Cup that they could, just maybe, make their way to a July 15 climax against Belgium, France, Uruguay or Brazil. There, in the impressive Luzhniki Stadium, the dream will surely be extinguished for any finalist from England’s half of the draw.
There is, though, no truly outstanding team just yet. France looked very attractive in the last 16, but they did concede three goals against miserable Argentina. World Cup winners tend to be the most solid performers these days rather than the most cavalier of contenders. The competition’s most attractive teams have invariably fallen before the final and France are only too aware of that having been victims in 1982 and 1986. Belgium are unused to latter stages, although they did reach the semi-final in 1986. Uruguay, with the delightful Cavani and strangely maturing Suárez, will have no better chance of rekindling past glories, while the media favourites, Brazil, are looking remarkably contemporary and steady. These two quarter-finals, France v Uruguay and Brazil v Belgium will surely provide the eventual winner if on-paper analysis is anything to go by. From this quartet, a truly decent team may emerge in the closing stages.
The final is not going to be a classic encounter, although if England were to find themselves up against Brazil, it would trigger a wave of 1970 revivalism anticipating the titanic struggle that took place in Guadalajara 48 years ago. Time has moved on and teams are far more systematic these days, as we saw with Japan (so unlucky, so refreshing), so the virtuoso has far less of a platform to perform on.
Which is why claims of a “best ever World Cup” are, at the moment, inappropriate and frequently resemble bold attempts at “presentism” and marketing dialogue, a condition which afflicts modern football at every major tournament. True, there have been some breathtaking moments, although penalty shoot-outs should not be providing the thrills and spills, these are a function to ensure the competition keeps to timetable. A World Cup can only be considered as a legitimate benchmark if outstanding teams and extraordinary individuals come to the fore. There’s still time for that to happen – Kylian Mbappe will be closely watched in the remaining ties and Neymar will be anxious to cement his reputation as Brazil home-in on a sixth World Cup success. FIFA, the media and, ultimately, Russia’s organising committee, will be hoping that in this next fortnight, the competition has the finale and heroes it deserves, especially after a promising first stage and round of 16.
GOTP flawed predictions: Last four – France, Belgium, Russia, England.