AMID the theorising about what England’s 2018 World Cup campaign really meant, there were suggestions that ranged from a reaction to the current toxic political climate in the UK to a reborn national team that highlights the power of the Premier League.
The fact is, if England had been in the other half of the draw, or Colombia hadn’t fluffed their lines, there would have been no freedom of Bury, no waistcoat summer and no “genial generation”. Above all, there would have been no “wave of love” that brought comparisons with 2012 and the Olympic Games.
Football success is a fragile thing and England, ultimately, reaped the benefit of not being successful. They won three games (Tunisia, Panama, Sweden), lost three (Belgium, Croatia and Belgium) and in 120 minutes, drew with Colombia. If they had won their group, they would have faced Japan, Brazil and France in the knockout stage. All across the competition, the group placings produced more comfortable permutations than anyone dared to dream of.
A run to the semi-final was, without question, unexpected – no matter what the draw brought them. That they are being treated like heroes is right and proper, last four is last four after all, and so refreshing after countless tournaments that have ended in disappointment, banana skins and excuses.
An old English problem, complacency and underestimating the opposition, may have contributed to their undoing, however. There was too much assumption that this kindly draw was heavily weighted in England’s favour, but no consideration that football folk in Sweden, Russia and Croatia were also thinking along the same lines, and they might have a better chance. “Football’s coming home”, that marvellous anthem of 1996, was revived but it’s original purpose, a song of joy to remind us that England were hosting a competition after a 30-year break, was recalibrated to suggest the trophy itself was on its way to the UK.
England got off to an excellent start in the semi-final and at half-time, Croatia were being written off by pundits and fans alike. The final result was really not a lot different from past episodes when England have fallen at an important hurdle. When they drew level, you just knew Croatia would win, but it was easier to be sympathetic to a young England team that had given its all but was over-reliant on set-pieces rather than genuine guile.
All being well, England can bottle some of the spirit of 2018 and support for the national team can grow once more. In order to do that, the Football Association needs to move away from its Wembley-only approach and take national team games around the country on a regular basis. Why? Because in a nation whose London-centricity underlines the north-south divide socially, politically and economically, the core of England’s support is not necessarily in the capital or Home Counties. England needs to benefit from the passion of club grounds rather than the sterile corporate venue that is Wembley.
The FA also has to pressurise clubs to continue to develop talent. This is difficult as managers come and go in the Premier and they cannot have any commitment to raising youngsters, the culture is instant success. As the competition drew to a close, Arsenal were signing more overseas players and Chelsea’s first new acquisition after hiring Antonio Conte’s replacement was another import. Being cosmopolitan is one of the Premier’s strengths, but England’s best young players cannot be peripheral squad members of the leading clubs, forever lent-out rather than given game time at a young age.
Other countries have implemented more stringent limits around the mix between domestic and international squad members, England needs to do likewise to ensure the momentum established in 2018 doesn’t go to waste. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, for example, has played less than 50 Premier League games, and he’s 22 years old. He’s appeared in more representative fixtures than bread-and-butter league fixtures. Surely that has to change if England is to breed players with the optimal level of experience that better equips them to compete in major tournaments, and to ensure success comes more than every 28 years?