England in the World Cup

England's World Cup form over the years has been patchy, as Cris Freddi analyses

Statistics probably aren’t lies or damned lies in this case. England’s first four appearances in the finals ended with a record of three wins and six defeats in 14 matches. They never really looked the equal of the tournament’s best teams – and it began to look as if the only way they were going to win the pesky thing was to stage it.

The 1966 triumph was a blip but not an undeserved one. England had their luck – Rattin’s sending-off, the ball that didn’t cross the line, a tournament held at home – but most of the players looked the part, no other team was demonstrably better, and no other manager matched Ramsey for coolness under pressure and all-round nous. When he lost the plot in 1970, England took a decade to recover.

In each of their three attempts since then, they’ve been eliminated narrowly or unluckily or both: without losing a match in 1982, to Maradona’s handball in 1986, on penalties in Italia 90.

Those are the bare bones. As for any overall theme, what strikes you is how England keep falling short of the highest level – and what a surprise it always is, to them and the rest of the world.

Back in 1950, for instance, what amounted to a Who’s Who of the Football League (Wright, Finney, Matthews, Mortensen, Mannion, Ramsey) lost to the USA of all people and to a Spanish side that later went down 6-1 to Brazil. Before the tournament, the Brazilian press had apparently been all agog at the prospect of seeing the “fathers of football”. After it, they and everyone else were nonplussed by how slow and unfit the England team looked, even in comparison with the Americans (manager Walter Winterbottom agreed). Given the reputation of English football as we know it, it makes weird reading.

Four years later, the same sort of story. A Uruguayan team with eight fit men won 4-2 and their greatest player, Juan Schiaffino, couldn’t help being condescending. England might be a force one day, he felt, if they could find some younger players. The team’s average age of over 30 told against them.

Nineteen fifty-eight was the worst of the lot. England, deprived of three important players by the Munich air crash, had no luck in the play-off, hitting the post twice (when the USSR hit it, the ball went in), and the goalless draw with Brazil was well planned and carried out – but it was against a team without Pelé or Garrincha, and the bottom line was four matches without a win.

In 1962, a great performance against Argentina had to be set against a dreadful draw with Bulgaria and defeat by Flórián Albert’s Hungarians and some ancient Brazilians – this despite a roll-call of Moore, Charlton, Greaves, Haynes, Wilson and Armfield. In 1970 England again lost narrowly to the real World Cup superpowers, Brazil and West Germany.

In 1982 those undefeated five games involved a decreasing number of goals, culminating in two 0-0 draws with a very average West Germany and Spain. In 1986 and 1990 it took England half the tournament to wake up and they were only successful by becoming more defensive: dropping a winger in 1986, playing five at the back in 1990. Before Maradona scored his second goal, England hadn’t had a shot at goal.

    Time for a little humility perhaps. Apart from 1966, Eng-land haven’t been a genuine world power since the First World War. In the World Cup finals, they’ve had players to rank with the best – Matthews at 39, Bryan Robson briefly, Banks and Bobby Charlton twice, Bobby Moore above all – but simply not very many. Players regarded as class acts over here didn’t do the business over there. Finney and Wright, Wilkins, Bryan Douglas, Trevor Francis, John Barnes.

Brazil wouldn’t have traded Wilf Mannion for their brilliant inside-forward trio in 1950, or Johnny Haynes for a 32-year-old Didi in 1962. And Jimmy Greaves scored one goal in seven finals matches. Compare and contrast the dozens of West German players who’ve made a genuine mark on the World Cup.

The current situation’s no better, maybe even on a par with 1958. In fact at the time of writing (just after the Morocco game) the picture looks an almighty mess. None of the central defenders and neither of the two main midfield enforcers can pass. Having discarded the only playmaker, an overweight has-been, we’re having to recall crocks like Anderton, and the supposed surfeit of strikers is a joke.

Meanwhile McManaman, Beckham and Scholes are not out of the top drawer (see above). Seaman’s a big barrier, Shearer’s the scariest forward in Europe, and Owen looks an ace in the hole – so England may still come good in the finals. But their history, ancient and very recent, is against it.

From WSC 137 July 1998. What was happening this month