Judging by some of the press reports – well summarised by Football365 as “Panic Mode” – on England’s 3-1 victory over Hungary last night, we can more or less forget about our winning in Germany this year. It’s for all the usual “reasons”, most of which I think are bunk:
- “Eriksson is an over-cautious manager who doesn’t bring the best out of the players at his disposal.” There’s a lot to say about this, but let’s just look at the cautious manager who is the first in living memory not to ignore our most skilful players because of their lack of work rate, who introduced Rooney at the age of 17 and brought in Ashley Cole after a mere handful of Premiership appearances. The same one who beat Argentina in a competitive World Cup Finals match with a team lacking Gary Neville, Steven Gerrard, any kind of proper left-sided player at all, plus injury-hobbled versions of Owen and Beckham.
- “Eriksson’s substitutions aren’t daring enough to win matches”. This makes the assumption that there are coaches out there who are doing exactly that on a regular basis. Apparently, Scolari did this against England and won the match – “boldly” substituting Figo because, “unlike Eriksson”, he “isn’t afraid of big-name players”. No, Scolari “won” the match with a deal of good fortune – namely, a good disallowed goal, the loss of Rooney, and penalties. Frankly, there’s only so much a coach can do with substitutions – he can’t guarantee that the player he sends on will do what he wants, he can’t account for what the other coach will do, and there are only so many replacements he can make. Shouting from the touchline is tricky, too, for all that our journos put such importance upon it. For one thing – you just can’t be heard above the crowd. Players who aren’t close to you have to take what you’re saying from other players – ever heard of Chinese Whispers? – and, of course, they have to understand you.
- “With only one more practice game before the World Cup, we’re still looking for answers”. Actually, most World Cup winners continue to do this long into the tournament itself. I’m going to devote the rest of this piece to some examples of what I mean:
- Geoff Hurst made his debut for England in February 1966. He played in the Quarter Final against Argentina because of an injury to Jimmy Greaves. Hurst scored in that game, but it was goals from midfield in the next match against Portugal – a brace by Bobby Charlton – that got England to the Final.
- Italy last won the World Cup in 1982, famously due to the goals of Paolo Rossi, who had been recalled to the team late in the day after two years out of football. Italy drew all three of their group matches, reaching the next round only on goal difference. Rossi didn’t score in any of those games.
- Germany’s second World Cup win came when they last hosted the tournament in 1974. In their group matches, they were well beaten by East Germany, and struggled to beat both Australia and Chile. The German training camp, a virtual fortress owing to threats from terrorist groups, was riven by disputes over money and at one point the manager, Helmut Schon, threatened to send the entire squad home and play with a second string side.
- Argentina – winners in 1986 – played only three teams of any quality to lift the trophy, and possessed only one world class player in Maradona. Against Italy in the group stages, they could only draw 1-1; against England, they failed to score until halfway through the second half and even then only through the most famous non-goal in the tournament’s history. Even in the Final itself, against Germany, they let go a 2-0 lead (and let’s hope this year’s Final is anywhere near as good as that one).
- I don’t need to point this out, but Brazil in 2002 were poor, and were lucky to meet England’s string-and-sellotape side in the heat of the day. The other sides they met in that tournament included Turkey, twice (who were unlucky to lose, twice!) China, Costa Rica, and Belgium. Compare England’s fortune in facing Sweden, Nigeria, Argentina and, of course, Brazil. In terms of the quality of teams at that tournament, it’s arguable that without the match against England, Brazil would have had no proper test at all, and you might well regard that game as the tournament’s true Final.
- France, in 1998, had a superb team, coming into its own, but a coach who the press didn’t trust with the job. And indeed, after cruising their group games (in spite of Zidane’s red card against Saudi Arabia) France squeezed through only on penalties against Italy, and came through – just! 2-1 against Croatia, not really having had the best of the game in any sense.
- In 1994, the story is all about Italy, losers on penalties in the worst World Cup Final ever. In their group, they finished THIRD, having lost to the Republic of Ireland and only drawn against Mexico. Only a late Baggio goal got them past Spain; in the semi-final, they might have been pleased to meet Stoichov’s Bulgaria, but after running up an early lead (shades of England-Portugal in Euro 2000) spent most of the game under siege.
The point I’m making here is that teams never cruise World Cups – and the winners never go into them with everything neatly planned out. The tournament is always a chapter of accidents, and the new, longer-format tournaments even more so.
I can see no teams who are coming into these Finals in better shape, or with things more settled. Even Brazil. Their astonishing forward line is there right enough, but once you get past them, the remaining five outfield players are deeply inferior to their English counterparts.
The press have it wrong. We won last night, with ease, and Crouch scored a first-class goal to go with that other first-out-of-the-balloon candidate, Beckham, who was fantastic. This might still be our year.