It’s World Cup time again, so as well as flags on cars, every salesman and his dog is trying to associate his brand and product with the competition, and with the usual tabloid furore, we can also expect the tired old clichés being wheeled out in response. “Fifty-two years of hurt,” “we’ll never get past the Germans” and “English players just don’t know how to win” will be recycled over and over, with only the first having any glimmer of truth. There are causes for optimism, however, so if anyone is prepared to discard their dark-coloured glasses for a few seconds and allow themselves to dream, we could be heading towards the best summer of our lives.
Photo by Дмитрий Пукалик, CC BY
Photo by Дмитрий Пукалик, CC BY
England’s teams in 1986 and 1990 are now both hailed as our finest teams since ‘66 and the unluckiest. Certainly, the team that went to Italy was superb, with the perfect mix of experience along with the maverick genius of Gascoigne. There is little doubt that if that competition had been played two more times, England would have come out victorious on at least one of those occasions. The same could be said for the squad in Mexico four years before, and the two sides are often lumped together in people’s minds. Probably due to them both being managed by Bobby Robson, with Lineker leading the line.
If you take a look at the squad and even the team from ‘86 however, it just doesn’t compare with that which would grace Italia ‘90, but still came so close only to be thwarted by the underhand tactics of Mr. Maradona. With no disrespect to specific members of that side, apart from the spine of the team, the others are hardly names that would be sung from the rafters should they be in today’s squad.
In Harry Kane, we have for the first time since the likes of Shearer and Lineker, a genuinely world-class striker. Russia 2018 could well be his Mexico ’86 where don’t forget the current Match of the Day host won the golden boot. Mexico saw the gamble of promoting Peter Beardsley to the starting 11 after less than a handful of games prior to the competition. On paper, when we got on the plane to Central America, hopes were low. They plummeted even more after losing to a poor Portugal side, then drawing against Morocco, with Butch Wilkins seeing red in the process.
The point I am trying to make is that for a team to be successful in the World Cup, it doesn’t necessarily have to have 11 world beaters. Look at the teams of the last few winners. Taking away the distortion of hindsight, many players from each of those teams would not have stood out beforehand. If they can do a job and do well and are placed around a core of four or five outstanding players, then with luck on their side — and if everything clicks — they have as good a chance as the other three of four teams.
England have that core of players, if — and it is a big if — they step up and play to their full potential.
If we look at England’s World Cup fixtures for 2018, we have not been given a poor hand. Squad wise, Belgium are one of the strongest in the tournament, but they will offer no unknowns to England, with so many of their stars plying their trade in the EPL. Tunisia and Panama, though they present the potential banana skins, should not have enough to derail Gareth Southgate’s team.
Looking ahead, it matters little if we win the group or come second, which is probably the more likely outcome. That is an advantage as it immediately relieves the pressure of having to top the group to avoid the harder side of the draw. It is always a lottery who you will play, but if we do finish second, the chances are the last 16th game will be against Poland. Again, a good side, but also the type who England should feel comfortable playing against.
Then the German’s are likely to come along. Going back to the start, there will be the usual intake of breaths and naysayers, and there is no denying the fact that they are a strong side, with the confidence that comes from their Confederation Cup win. Football is a funny old game though, and something deep inside me believes that on our day, we can beat the side that has handed so much bitter defeat to England over the years. We just have to hope that day will be 7th July.
After that, it is just a matter of beating the one-man Portugal team and the often flattering-to-deceive Brazilians and we can lay 52 years of history to bed. Even if we do come up short this summer, extending the parallel with Mexico, that was the start of a time when England could genuinely consider themselves contenders. Continuation and the blooding of talented young players saw them have the most success since that summer of ‘66. Though I am in no way comparing Gareth Southgate with the incomparable Sir Bobby, there are several other areas where comparisons can be made. So, forget all the negativity and get on board with what may well be the ride of our lives, which will continue into Qatar and beyond.