By Ben Thomas
I’m not so sure that we Englishmen know what we want, or what to expect of our national team this summer. Sure, the bitter Scottish do: they’ve been ordering Algeria and Slovenia shirts in droves, hoping that our team slips up and embarrass themselves. The Welsh are split in two, some of whom are sportingly in support of their fellow British friends, and others simply look to support teams without a bias against who are playing against England. Holland shirts have been selling well in Cardiff I hear.
But the attitude towards this England team is certainly different this time around to the overhyping that the tabloid newspapers like to build up every four years. They have certainly tried to do the same once again, The Sun have been airing a horrendous advert in which former England manager Terry Venables absolutely massacres Elvis Presley’s “If I can dream” with a big band and choir accompaniment that include fellow Sun columnists Harry Redknapp and Ian Wright on the pitch at Wembley stadium, suggesting that we could just go all the way this time. Regardless, no one really believes it is likely.
That hasn’t stopped many people from going out to buy the new England shirt, flying flags on their cars, and it certainly won’t stop the pubs from filling up when our boys step out on to the pitch, and rightly so, that is the joy of the World Cup: getting behind your team and showing your support. Yet the expectations of this squad are certainly more realistic than we have seen for the past twenty years or so, since England made it all the way to the Semi-Finals in Turin, only to be knocked out by their Italian hosts. It seems that the British public have finally grown wise to the tactics of the likes of The Sun and Daily Mail newspapers and Sky Sports News channel who persist in their outdated perception of England as the home of football, therefore our team must be the best in the world, when it clearly isn’t. In 2009, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski explained in their book “Why England Lose” that for the size of country that England is, statistically our national team does as well as is expected of them. This message seems to have been assimilated by most fans, as no one who considers themselves a half-serious football fan is talking of England realistically winning the World Cup this summer.
I think the humiliation of failing to qualify for Euro 2008 has done us some good, and when I say us I mean both the English public and the national team. There has been an air of unjustified arrogance surrounding our players these past few years as though they thought they were amongst the very best because they play in what is widely considered as the most competitive league in the world, the Premier League. But this generation of the England team has never fulfilled the potential in a major tournament that many believed they had (mostly because of tabloid hype). There have been some encouraging performances that have stimulated interest, but the team still lacks the fluency that fans expect, being used to watching the Premier League’s best skimming the ball around the pitch with seeming ease. In the two most recent international friendlies against Mexico and Japan, despite winning both games the team’s performances were far from convincing.
It must be remembered that as a national team, England have never really played particularly eye catching football and this has attracted much criticism from fans who don’t like the “route one” long ball approach that the team has been known to revert to. There is a growing section of England fans that want their team to win pretty or not win at all, and this can be taken as proof of the ever increasing influence that football from continental Europe and South America is having on English football fans, as well as the now enormous presence of foreign players in the English Premier League.
Another factor towards the country’s attitude to this year’s England squad is the inclusion of certain players that have led to many fans feeling disillusioned. Ashley Cole’s place in the squad was never in doubt, even those who dislike him as an individual all agree he is certainly amongst the very best left backs in the world, but he and disgraced former captain John Terry have never been that popular with their public because of their antics off the pitch, making the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent months. They are not the only players who have run into trouble either, as Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard have also become embroiled in questionable situations that have made their way into the papers. But it is specifically Terry and Cole who have been painted by the media to typify everything that many English people despise about the modern footballer, and it has worked because their misdemeanours have been so high profile. It has been suggested that if this type of player wins the World Cup for England, it would only do harm to our society. Sir John Terry anyone? To the majority, it sounds morally wrong. Back to the football side of things, since being installed as national manager following Steve McLaren’s failure to qualify in 2008, Fabio Capello, without question one of the most eligible managers in the game, has looked to instil a more positive, less complacent attitude within his squad. When he first arrived he declared that no player was an automatic choice for the World Cup, that everyone would be picked on form, without exception. As a result some players have faded into the background, most notably Michael Owen and the now ancient Garry Neville. Capello does not take anything for granted and expects the same of his players. He is the boss, and it is clear that his squad know this. The squad has been affected by injury, most notably David Beckham is only travelling as a member of the backroom staff and as an ambassador for England’s World Cup bid for 2018. Rio Ferdinand is the latest big name to be ruled out, meaning that Tottenham’s Ledley King is likely to partner John Terry in the centre of his defence. King’s inclusion has raised questions itself, as he has a terrible record of knee problems that never properly heal. Despite being club captain, he rarely trains alongside his team mates at Spurs. We will have to wait and see whether or not he can make it through the tournament without a serious injury setback.
Another call up that raised eyebrows was Liverpool veteran Jamie Carragher who had declared himself retired from international football several years ago, only to change his mind towards the end of the season. Viewed alongside the high profile exclusion of Theo Walcott who played a big part in England’s relatively easy qualifying campaign, and there are those who believe Carragher doesn’t deserve to be included. Emile Heskey, the “non-scoring forward” divides fans down the middle as many feel Sunderland’s Darren Bent, who came third in the Premier League scoring charts this season, should be there in his place. An interesting stat about Heskey: With 7 international goals from his 58 appearances for England, he has scored fewer than famous Paraguayan goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert.
Well documented positions of weakness are goalkeeper, where there are three players who are all of a similar level and none of whom know if they will be first choice come Saturday against the USA, and right back where Glenn Johnson is known to be very useful going forward, but his ability when actually defending has been the subject of much debate.
The team’s star player? Need you look further than Wayne Rooney? Probably not, but I am sure Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard may have a thing or two to say about that.
An England fan’s prediction for England: I expect the team to comfortably make it out of the group and, with a bit of luck, make it to the quarter finals.
Enjoy the World Cup