Of course, it wasn’t as exciting as most people thought it would be. It couldn’t be. Still, at least England got a “massive” match in the first round which will, undoubtedly lead to enough “banter” to float several hundred chests of tea in Boston Harbour over the next few months or so. The hype machine will run into overdrive over the next few months or so – as we will go on to see, it has already started – and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. Sane, rational discourse is hardly likely to be the order of the day given the mob mentality that seems to pervade so much of football culture nowadays. Especially when English and Americans are given the opportunity to thumb their noses at each other from the comfort of their own homes on either side of the Atlantic.
Ultimately, England drew a team from the Americas, another team from Europe and a team from Africa. Each of them could have been probably have better and each have them could definitely have been worse. There was never any realistic hope that the English media would have learnt any humility from the national team’s Euro 2008 capitulation against Croatia and Russia and this was demonstrated as early as Saturday morning in “The Sun”, whose idiot-in-chief Dominic Mohan went for a front page headline that may as well have been tailor-made by a sports psychologist to stiffen the resolve of the opposition to show these damn, arrogant English a thing or two. Never mind the quality, feel the white heat.
The most fortunate aspect of the draw for England is that they play the USA first, because it does at least give them the opportunity to set any setbacks straight from this match. There is no doubt that the current American team is one of the best dozen or so teams in international football. Their win against Spain at the Confederations Cup earlier this year and their subsequent narrow defeat to Brazil in the final of the same competition are proof, of it were needed, that anybody in England who thinks that this will be anything other than one of the most difficult matches that they could have to play as an opening match is living twenty years in the past. These were neither results nor performances of a team that could be described as filler material.
Despite this, however, the USA have a tendency to blow hot and cold a little. The three successsive wins that sealed their place in South Africa all came by an odd goal against mediocre opposition – El Salvador, Trinidad & Tobago and Honduras – and they recently also lost friendly matches against Slovakia and Denmark. This has been an ongoing theme with the American team for a while, now. The team that exceeded all expectations in reaching the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup and the CONCACAF Gold Cup was knocked out in the First Round of the tournament in Germany four years later. We don’t yet know which American team will turn up in South Africa next summer, and we’re unlikely to find out until some time into their match against England at the earliest. Also, should America lose their opening match, a sizable proportion of their more floating support will at least be able to claim that they didn’t care that much to begin with.
England’s next match comes up against Algeria, who are making their first appearance in the World Cup finals since 1986. Algeria have spent much of the last twenty years in something approaching a football wilderness. However, they beat the African champions Egypt twice in qualifying (once in the group stages and once in a play-off match). Did they peak in their play-off match, or have they got more in the tank? More troublingly for England, their history against African teams in the World Cup finals has hardly been list imperious victories. They drew 0-0 against Morocco in Mexico in 1986 and, in 1990, they laboured to a 1-0 win against Egypt in the group stages and required extra-time and two penalties to beat Cameroon in the quarter-finals. In 1998, England were made to work hard again for a 2-0 win against Tunisia in their opening match, and in 2002 managed a 0-0 draw against Nigeria. Put another way, England have played five matches against African teams at the World Cup finals, and have only won twice in ninety minutes.
For their final match, England play Slovenia. Another straightforward match, it would be easy to surmise, but the truth is again a little more complex. Much has been made – and rightly so – of the fact that they out-thought Guus Hiddink and Russia over two legs in the play-offs, but they also knocked the Czech Republic and Poland, both perennial qualifiers for the World Cup finals from Eastern Europe in their qualifying group. They also gave England a game when they travelled to Wembley for a friendly match there at the start of September, although England squeezed through that match by two goals to one. They also beat Italy 1-0 in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, although they didn’t qualify for the finals themselves, and in their only previous appearance in the World Cup finals, in 2002, they lost all three of their group matches. The biggest problem that the current Slovenian team seems to have is in front of goal. Only Milivoje Novakovič of 1FC Köln has managed double figures in front of goal for Slovenia, with thirteen goals in thirty-six international matches. Much will come down to what the two teams need on the final day, but England will be in a significantly advantageous position if they go into their final match needing a draw against a team that is likely to struggle in front of goal.
Here’s the rub for England. Pride comes before a fall. They may have failed to reach the World Cup finals on three occasions (1974, 1978 and 1994) since they deigned to enter in the first place but, once there, they have a pretty good record. They haven’t been knocked out at the opening group stage since 1958, when they lost a play-off to the USSR after drawing all three of their matches. One win from those three draws would have seen them through. Almost everybody else has failed at least once. Brazil didn’t get through the opening group stage in 1966. Argentina didn’t get through in 2002, and neither did France. Italy couldn’t get past the first stage in 1962, 1966 or 1974. Only West Germany and Germany have a better record at getting through the opening group stage of the World Cup over the last fifty years than England, and this should set some alarm bells ringing. For all of the optimism surrounding their qualifying campaign and the astute management of Fabio Capello, the England squad remains brittle.
How tired will the players be by the end of May? Many of the most influential amongst them, after all, may have been going at full pelt in the Premier League and the Champions League until then. What happens if some of the more important players get injured? Anybody glibly responding that it will never happen should probably recall Wayne Rooney in 2006, David Beckham in 2002 or, going back a little further, Kevin Keegan in 1982. None of this is deliberate, mischievous scare-mongering, but it is worth taking a moment to counter the relentless torrent of stuff and imbecility that seems likely to pour forward from the English press over the next seven months or so. England might not win the 2010 World Cup. You saw it here first.