This time there was no one else to blame, but that hasn't stopped some people believing England are on the verge of something great. Cris Freddi begs to differ
No need for a blow-by-blow: we all saw the same tournament. When England managed to protect a lead, they had shape and substance. When they didn’t, it wasn’t pretty. Denmark self-destructed and Nigeria didn’t matter, but Argentina was one of the great ones, a spookily complete payback. No coincidence, surely, that it was played under cover, in controlled conditions – and that it bucketed down for Denmark.
On the other hand, in the heat of the day, the top and tail were embarrassing. The second half against Sweden was just about England’s worst in any World Cup, matching the games against Portugal in 1986 and maybe the US in 1950 – and the second half against Brazil shot past once you realised they didn’t have a clue. The only surprise (though it’s not really) is that anyone was surprised.
I get the feeling Sven-Goran Eriksson wasn’t. Shortly before the finals, he apparently said he wanted England to get the ball forward early because he’d rather they lost the ball in the last third than further back. Which suggests he didn’t believe they had the players to keep it. Which in turn makes you wonder if he believes this crop of young players is everything it’s made out to be (though he goes along with it in public). Is he selling that pasta sauce and pushing a classical collection to cash in because he might not be here that long?
As soon as they got back, David Beckham began reinflating the national balloon. We can win Euro 2004, and the next World Cup is a “genuine target”. When we’re at full fitness, says Rio, there’s nothing to stop us. Look at how young our talented players are.Yeah, let’s do that. Beckham, Campbell, Scholes, Butt and Fowler are 27. They’re suddenly going to fulfil their great potential, are they, when they’re nearly 30? Meanwhile the later vintage includes Mills, Heskey, Dyer and Vassell. If you honestly believe they’re about to take anything by storm, you’re part of the problem.
We can point to Ferdinand and Owen, who are already up there, and Gerrard and Hargreaves, who probably will be. But the last two are ball winners, and you need more than that to win tournaments. If Joe Cole doesn’t come on (he probably should have against Brazil), the wait between winning World Cups will go past 40 years towards vanishing point. But you can’t tell the English that. They believe they’re chosen. Ooh, if it hadn’t been for penalty shoot-outs and that little devil’s handball. Even the lack of excuses this time won’t change that. We gave football to the world, any minute now it’s coming home.
A quick history lesson. England haven’t been the best since the First World War. Don’t even begin to believe this is an exaggeration. Before 1914, they didn’t bother sending their full team out, leaving the amateurs to hit double figures against just about everyone. But no country can go on like that, especially when the gene pool’s been eroded by a million and a half casualties. While the Italians, Germans and South Americans were evolving, learning about training camps and pacing themselves through concentrated tournaments in the heat of June, what were the island race doing? Waiting for King Arthur to come back?
Get it into the collective head once and for all: this is not one of the great footballing countries. Germany and Brazil have reached the last four of the World Cup ten times each. England have done it twice, once at home. The BBC showed the 1970 version of England v Brazil during the tournament, and that should have damped the myth down a bit. Mistakes on both sides, some really rough tackling. And if Bobby Moore had the greatest game of a great career, it was because he had to: Brazil threatened to score almost every time they got near him. Meanwhile, Geoff Hurst, Francis Lee and the midfield played the ball back and across and back again (forget Astle’s chance – that came from Everaldo’s hilarious miskick). Nearly 20 years later, Tony Adams was making the same point about England at Euro 88: too predictable, too many straight lines. The result was three defeats out of three, despite Lineker, Robson, Hoddle, Waddle and John Barnes.
Pin this up: this is England and nothing has changed. If you don’t make a single half-chance for half an hour against ten men, ask some difficult questions. Ask them about Beckham, the greatest triumph of style over content in football history, and about Paul Scholes, who helped stifle Argentina but had a nightmare when it mattered: no runs into the box and contributions to both Brazil goals. Scholes is 27 and can’t take the heat. Ronaldinho is 22 and Ronaldo was a world star at 20. Time to wake up and smell the Brazilian coffee.
From WSC 186 August 2002. What was happening this month