A new England?

With Japan and Korea all done and dusted, have England lost their element of surprise? We look cautiously back over a very different World Cup

It’s always tempting to read too much in­to a World Cup, especially in its im­med­iate aftermath. Who would have thought in 1990, for example, that such a turgid tournament, littered with violence on and off the pitch, would be the prelude to a de­cade of soaring interest and fantastic wealth in English football?

After all, it’s a fairly small number of games. If only a few of them had tipped the other way (Portugal v South Korea, It­­aly v South Korea and Sweden v Senegal, for example), we might be wearily be­moaning the continued dominance of Europe and the failure of football’s less established regions to make the breakthrough, yet again. So it makes sense to be careful.

However, there are some reasons to be cautiously optimistic after this World Cup. For a start, no one is talking about hool­iganism. Whatever the reasons for that, it makes a pleasant change. No one would be stupid enough to think that things will work out the same at the next two big tournaments in Portugal and Ger­­many, but if there is one solid gain from an England point of view, it is that the nat­ional team’s fans have been through a whole tournament where they won almost universal praise rather than abuse. Maybe, just maybe, that novel experience of being popular will have some effect in the future.

The second reason, which might seem perverse, is that for once England did nei­ther much better nor much worse than might have been expected. They had some good moments and some bad, but there was little controversy and, despite David Seaman, no scapegoating – everyone could see the fundamental problems against Brazil were collective, not individual. So England were just OK and for once it seems the country as a whole pretty much accepted that. Which has got to be preferable both to triumphalism on flimsy evidence, or self-flagellation in tra­u­matic defeat (not to mention bleating about corruption and conspiracies).

What’s more, as we suggested in the editorial before the tournament started, more people felt comfortable about supporting England this time around than before. It’s not a judgment based on any kind of scientific evidence, but it did seem as though Sven’s England was one that ap­pealed to (or at least didn’t alienate) a lot of groups who previously found it impossible to support the national team. You wouldn’t want to read too much into a transient mood, but there was something very different about 2002 compared to 1998. Again, though, Germany in four years time, should England qualify, will be another matter altogether.

So much for England. But the rest of the tournament also offered some reasons to be cheerful. Ever since João Havelange took over at the head of FIFA from Stanley Rous in 1974, the stench of patronage and intercontinental wheeler-dealing has run in tandem with the dev­elopment of a genuinely global game. Both those trends were evident again in 2002.

You don’t have to subscribe to the wil­der variants of the conspiracy theories to link the exercise of patronage with the achievements of countries from Asia, Africa and Concacaf in reaching the latter stages of the tournament. FIFA’s power-brokers have shamelessly courted support in these regions and while that has had many negative effects, it has also helped to produce a competition which is no longer necessarily dominated by Europe and South America. The awarding of the tournament to countries outside the traditional power centres has been one motivating factor; efforts at the grass roots (even if sometimes for less than pure motives) are another. And success breeds ambition. If Senegal can get to the quarter-finals at their first attempt, then why not Ghana or Ivory Coast too? And if Turkey can drag themselves from nowhere in little more than ten years, what is to stop Belarus or Uzbekistan? (Quite a few things, probably, but it’s the raising of the sights that counts.)

While some thought the latter stages of the competition would have benefited from the presence of the likes of France, Argentina and Italy, that they were somehow devalued without the traditional giants, it was the feeling that anything could happen that made 2002 such an intriguing World Cup if not, perhaps, one of the really great tournaments. For those who prefer their World Cups with the old-style England (fans and team) and the heavyweights slugging it out at the end, there are always videos of 1990 available.

From WSC 186 August 2002. What was happening this month