EXPECTATION can be a dangerous thing, especially when the outcome of a football match doesn’t only depend on the performance of a single team. England go into their European Championship semi-final with the hopes of a nation resting on their shoulders. Many people consider the opportunity is all theirs, that Denmark are merely support actors in this drama, but too many opponents have underrated the Danes over the years.
There is a tendency to assume England are always one of the very top national teams, a status that has owed more to history than to reality. Since 1966, they have failed to appear in a single major final, while many of their peers have made several. England, with a sizeable population and extraordinary footballing wealth, have under-achieved since 1966. It could also be argued that their finest moment was in fact a blip in a lifetime of falling short – just glance at their World Cup record before and since 1966.
England’s status declined from 1970 while Denmark’s rose significantly. In terms of population, Denmark is a little under half the size of London and football professionalism didn’t arrive there until the late 1970s. When Denmark beat England 1-0 at Wembley in 1983, qualifying for Euro 1984, they were a far better team than England. At the finals in France, they were certainly an oustanding team, only bettered by a Michel Platini-inspired team.
At the 1986 World Cup, Denmark’s inexperience on the big stage let them down after they had beaten Scotland 1-0, Uruguay 6-1 and West Germany 2-0. Since the 1980s, Denmark and England have not been too far apart, but still the pundits rarely, if ever, consider the Danes as being close to England’s equals. For some, it is still 1950, England are a powerhouse and Denmark a minnow. The clash with England will be Denmark’s fourth European Championship semi-final (1964, 1984, 1992 and 2020) while it is England’s third (1968, 1996, 2020). Denmark have been crowned European Champions once, England haven’t even reached a final.
There’s no doubt England have developed the knack of being very hard to beat. It started in 2018 and has continued this year – both times, the draw has been kind to them but there is little doubt that England underestimated Croatia in 2018 and allowed the game to drift away. It is not hard to see a similar situation at Wembley if Gareth Southgate’s men take their eye off the ball.
It is true you can only beat the team facing you, but meeting average opponents can distort your own relative strength. Of the four semi-finalists, England arguably had a marginally easier run. Using FIFA rankings to benchmark the teams involved, England’s five opponents before meeting Denmark have had an average points total of 1526, a lower figure than Denmark (1537), Spain (1561) and Italy (1597). England were the highest ranking of all the last four and the differential between their own points and their opponents’ average (1687 minus 1526) provides the biggest gap – 161.
The team with the easiest run to the last four doesn’t always win the competition. For example, when Greece surprised everyone in 2004, they had the hardest path, facing France, Portugal (twice), Spain, Czech Republic and Russia.
England and Denmark are unlikely to be seen as ground-breaking teams that could change the face of football. There’s nothing especially innovative about either, just solid, tournament sides that have come good. England, tough to break down and pragmatic, may just have stumbled upon a decent, if unspectacular, team at the right time, something which has eluded them for years. Denmark have a strong team ethic but lost their best player, Christian Eriksen, to a hospital bed. There is a narrative around Denmark which could yet deliver a “story” that will fill Rådhuspladsen in Copenhagen in a week or so. It’s reassuring and heartwarming to see Eriksen up on his feet again.
While the TV experts, the pubs and newspapers will be full of predictions about England’s chances, they will all have to realise that Denmark, too, will be going all out to win. If Southgate believes there is a “special opportunity” then his opposite number, Kasper Hjulmand, will be thinking likewise about his own team’s chances.
There will be more pressure on England and not just because they are the home team. They desperately need to show they can beat motivated opponents when it really counts. That Croatia defeat in 2018 will still rankle and there’s the 2016 horror show against Iceland to erase. Aside from that, there’s assorted penalty shoot-outs in the memory bank as well as that horrendous World Cup in 2014 when a point against Costa Rica was celebrated like they had won silverware. England need to show they are not a soft touch against the unfancied and uncelebrated.
Back in 1968, England were confident of victory against Yugoslavia in Florence, especially as they fielded seven of the team that won the World Cup two years earlier. The Times’ regal journalist, Geoffrey Green, predicted a desperate struggle and he was right as Yugoslavia shocked Sir Alf Ramsey with a 1-0 victory with Alan Mullery sent off, the first England player to be dismissed. The European press, including the legendary Italian manager, Vittorio Pozzo, predicted an England v Italy final, but it wasn’t to be. Green noted on the following Monday, “The unfriendly critics who pointed to Wembley as the reason for England’s global victory in 1966 are hugging themselves.”
England’s record since 1966 suggests the sceptics may have been right, but in the modern game home advantage possibly counts for less, especially in these pandemic times. When England won the World Cup, the status certainly counted, England were the third nation to win on home soil and since 1966, West Germany, Argentina and France have all won as hosts. Since 1998, a period that has seen the World Cup awarded to less proficient nations such as South Korea, Japan, South Africa and Russia, a host hasn’t even reached the final.
The European Championship hasn’t seen a host winner since 1984 when France won, but Portugal and France again have been beaten finalists. If any country could be considered “host” in Euro 2020, it is England, who have been at Wembley for all but one of their games.
Italy await the winners. If that should be England, it is worth recalling that the last time England beat Italy in a truly competitive game was in November 1977, a 2-0 victory in an already-doomed World Cup campaign. In fact, that game represents the only competitive victory England have enjoyed. Of their 27 meetings, only eight have been in major tournaments and six of those have ended in defeat (admittedly one by penalties).
It is premature for either England or Denmark to look ahead to the final. For one of them football has to come home first.