Perfidious Albion. The pantomime villains of international football. The team that everybody loves to hate. This year, however, it had been starting to look as if England might have had a quieter time of things. Thrashed out of sight by Germany at the World Cup finals two years ago, a few weeks of navel-gazing was followed by not a great deal changing as everybody’s attention turned back to the Premier League and the Champions League but, while qualification for the finals of the European Championships this summer was achieved with relatively little fuss by Fabio Capello, this coach has now gone – angered by the FAs decision to strip John Terry of the team captaincy – and replaced by the avuncular Roy Hodgson. The new man, however, has found that there is no such thing as a “quiet” time for this team, with an ongoing – and, one rather suspects, still brewing – row over which players should have been taken to the finals is now threatening to overshadow what small increments of progress he had managed in his first two friendly matches in charge of the team.
The History: Where to begin? It was the Football Association that first codified the game in 1863, and England played in the worlds first international match against Scotland in 1870. There has been little plain sailing since then, though. A row between the FA and FIFA over payments to amateur playerss kept the team out of the first three World Cups, and their re-admittance after the end of the Second World War found them competing in a footballing world which had changed considerably without the FA apparently having noticed. Defeats at the hands of Spain and the United States of America at the 1950 World Cup finals were chalked up as freak results, but the sound of bell tolling for the myth of English superiority became deafening during 1953 and 1954 as an all-conquering Hungarian beat them 6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 in Budapest. More of the same was to follow at the World Cup finals in 1954, when they were comprehensively beaten by Uruguay in the quarter-finals of the competition.
Englands performance in major tournament finals since then has been at best mixed. They’ve made three semi-finals and, of course, won one World Cup since returning to the full international fray in 1946, having lost twice in the semi-finals of the European Championships, in 1968 to Yugoslavia and in 1996 to Germany, as well as having lost a 1990 World Cup semi-final to West Germany. Since then, however, the near-celebrity status of the England team has come to overshadow its performance on the pitch. They failed to qualify for the 2008 European Championships – beaten by Croatia on a curiously Bergmanesque night at Wembley – and, having scrambled through the group stages at the 2010 World Cup finals with no distinction whatsoever, were outclassed in every department by Germany in the Second Round of the competition.
The Team: The current England team would be in danger of becoming likeable were it not for the John Terry-shaped cloud that currently hangs over it. They have an excellent goalkeeper in Joe Hart and some interesting – if not quite hair-raising – young players coming through, such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Danny Welbeck. For these finals, however, injuries have hit them hard and their shortcomings are manifold. If England supporters had been hoping for a meek exit and a quiet summer, however, they are likely to be disappointed. One of the pivotal stories of the domestic season – allegations of racism against Terry which led to criminal charges – have had far-reaching consequences, and it is probable that this is not a storm which has hit the fullness of its ferocity yet. Roy Hodgsons two friendly matches, meanwhile, have strongly suggested a team that will be cautious and difficult to break down, but narrow wins against Belgium and Norway offer few hints as to whether they will be able to offer the same level of resistance against stronger opposition.
The Coach: If ever there was an appropriate use of the phrase “thrown into disarray”, then this surely came with the sudden resignation of Fabio Capello at the start of February. Oddly, the FA decided to wait until the end of the Premier League season before announcing his successor – a delay so long that it was tempting to start thinking that they had simply forgotten to appoint anyone – and when the announcement came, it was Roy Hodgson of West Bromwich Albion that was offered the position rather than the favourite for it, Harry Redknapp. Despite stunned disbelief in some quarters of the press, Hodgson was a sensible choice. He has coached a team to the World Cup finals before, has considerable overseas experience and is known for bringing the best out of moderate teams with tight tactical drilling. The Terry/Ferdinand stramash, however, has called his judgement into question (even if the FA stand accused of having hung him out to dry a little over it, but that’s another article in itself) and the hostility of the press over his appointment will mean that his honeymoon period will be unlikely to last much longer than the first time that his team drops any points. So, some time in the next few days, probably.
The Kit: Umbro produced their first England kit in 1954, and apart from the periods between 1960 and 1965, when they were made by Bukta, and 1974 and 1984, when they were made by Admiral, have had the contract ever since. This year’s effort, however, is a bit of a disaster. The home kit doesn’t so much break with tradition as smash tradition into little pieces, throw it into a dustbin and then set said dustbin on fire. It’s all white (insert your own joke here), and with the badge and trim colourised into red. It is, in other words, not an England kit. The change kit, meanwhile, is navy blue and sky blue, which may well look passable in a bar with a huge flat-screen television strapped to its back wall, but again is not an England kit. White shirts, navy blue shorts and white socks. Red shirts, white shorts and red socks. It really doesn’t have to be complicated.
The Prospects: It has already started to feel as if the non-plussed atmosphere that has surrounded the last few weeks has started to wear thin, with chinks of “What if?” now clearly visible underneath. The fact remains that England face a tremendously difficult task to get through the group stages of the competition. Their opening match is against France, and should they lose that match the pressure will inevitably start to build. Their remaining matches are very tricky – effectively an away match against Ukraine and a final match against Sweden, who they haven’t beaten in a competitive match since 1968 – but a case could arguably be made for them picking up something from one or both of them. Should they somehow scramble through, the quarter-finals would see them having to play Spain, Italy, the Republic of Ireland or Croatia. So, very tough to get through the group stage, and then most likely a mammoth task to get through the round after that. There will really be no way of knowing what “emerging from the tournament with credit” could conceivably mean until after it has finished, considering the chaotic build-up the team has had.
The National Anthem: England: “God Save the Queen” – Thanks to the unusual way in which the United Kingdom goes about the business of nationality, England doesn’t have its own national anthem. Land of Hope and Glory or Jerusalem are occasionally used in the sporting arena but – as is the case with football – the most common anthem used is that of the United Kingdom. In many ways, it’s an ironic position to be in, as God Save the Queen – first definitively published in 1744 and made popular in London theatres at the height of the following year’s Jacobite Rising – features a number of verses added over the years to make it perfectly plain that in the view of the author, Scottish people are all savages and that England is the bestest ever. According to the official website of the Royal Family, however, there are two official verses to the song, only one of which is typically performed. Such is the flamboyant patriotism of the island race that it is hugely rare to find a Briton who knows the words to any other verse. Unless, of course, they are particularly opposed to the Jacobite cause.
The British Press Will Say: Take the worst thing you could possibly think of anyone saying, multiply it by seven, and you can more or less guarantee that it will either by said by, to or about a member of the England squad over the next couple of weeks or so by a British journalist, somewhere or other. Escaping this din is best achieved by placing a metal bucket over your head and beating it continually (and at a high tempo) with a wooden spoon.
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