At least, we might reflect, expectations had already been lowered to such an extent that there can barely be anybody left on the face of the entire planet who believes in any seriousness that England will win the World Cup in Brazil next summer. It’s not a matter of being fatalist or of showing false modesty. The evidence has been right there before our very eyes for a considerable amount of time, and England supporters now making their plans for the tournament next summer can do so with a carefree attitude, finally freed of the last vestiges of that old albatross called Expectation. As if having perhaps their most mediocre squad of players in living memory wasn’t enough to recalibrate the expectations of those who have never quite gotten to grips with the fact that those pesky foreigners are now considerably better at playing association football than the English themselves are, the prospect of a difficult drawin difficult conditions now awaits.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. The overwhelming majority of England supporters and well-wishers have long watched their national team’s matches through the gaps between their fingers, whilst accusations of “English arrogance” frequently come from those who are desperate for the English to live down to their expectations of them, with very little other supporting evidence other than the worst excesses of the tabloid press and what they have managed to find by looking extremely hard for it. Of course, there is an upside for people who consider themselves to be “Anyone But England.” There may be a little more humility hanging over this team at the moment, but the chances of The Little Satan progressing to the latter stages of the competition have sunk from slim to vanishingly small.
Ultimately, the luck of the draw ran out for England yesterday afternoon. Uruguay have one of the finest players in the world at the moment in the form of an ebullient Luis Suarez – and you don’t have to like him to recognise this – whilst Italy is a nation that England has never got the better of when it has mattered, with the gulf between the technical abilities of the two nations having been thrown into sharp relief by the most one-sided goalless draw of all-time in the quarter-finals of the European Championships a year and a half ago which ended, as these stories are wont to, with Italy winning on penalty kicks. Indeed, even the team that would, on the surface of things, appear to be the makeweight of the group have enough about them to give Roy Hodgson plenty to think about. Costa Rica finished in second place in the CONCACAF final qualifying round and beat both Mexico and the United States of America on their way to the finals. The idea that there are no easy games at international level may be easy to disprove, but there are no easy games in the World Cup finals these days.
As if this isn’t enough for Hodgson to have on his plate next summer, England will also have to travel to the one venue they they didn’t want to when they make the trip to the city of Manaus to play Italy. There has already been a minor war of words between Hodgson – whose desire not to want to travel there was based upon not unreasonable concerns over humidity in the area, rather than because he thinks that the people there are all thieves, or whatever – and the mayor of the city, who took Hodgson’s concerns about the weather there as some sort of personal slight, and as if that wasn’t enough, FIFA confirmed today thay they have aready brought the kick-off time for this match forward from nine o’clock in the evening local time (2am UK time), to six o’clock in the local time (11pm) at the behest of television broadcasters, who were concerned at the impact on television ratings that playing a match in the middle of the night in Europe might have upon ratings. As ever, television trumps all other considerations when it comes to football.
Things wouldn’t get much easier for England were they to contrive to find pick their way through a difficult-looking group. Finshing second in the group would, they could get past the winners of the group featuring Colombia, Cote D’Ivoire, Japan and Greece, have to play Brazil in the quarter-finals should they win their group. Winning their group might well mean having to play Spain in the quarter-finals and even getting through that match would mean likely having to play Germany or Argentina in the semi-finals. There is, perhaps, a small consolation to be had in saying that if a team does wish to win the World Cup, then it should have to beat whomever is put in front of it no matter who they are, but all draws are not equals and, whilst England didn’t do as badly with theirs as the United States of America – who have to play Germany, Portugal and Ghana in their group matches alone – or Australia – who have to play Spain, the Netherlands and Chile – it is still an extremely difficult position in which they find themselves. Even symbolism – they have to play Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte, the scene of their 1950 defeat at the hands of the United States of America – seems to be against them.
During the post mortems carried out after England’s four-one thrashing at the hands of Germany in South Africa in 2010, few stopped to ask how long carrying out the transitions required to give the team so much as a cat in hell’s chance of turning their slow decline of the last few years around. Even if such changes could be made, it’s unlikely that they could in the space of three and a half years, and in any case all we have seen since then is further entrenchment of the control of the Premier League over the game in this country, while a succession of sticking plasters have been applied to the national team which have done little beyond ensuring qualification for the finals of the competition. Even if the will had been there in the first place, such changes would require a considerable amount of time to bear any fruit. It hasn’t, and England’s limitations are still on display for all the world to see, although perhaps not as much at this precise moment in the time as they might be next summer.
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