As the World Cup in Russia starts this week, Nick Triani tries to re-define his relationship with the England football team after many years of hurt – and surprisingly finds some grounds for optimism.
Being of English and Italian heritage, I’ve been spoilt most years. As far back as I can remember Italy have always appeared at a major football tournament (the Euros and World Cup). It’s not just the fact that they’ve appeared, they usually go far in these tournaments and in the specific case of the World Cup, I’ve witnessed two Italy wins. It’s an unbelievable feeling. Of course this year Italy didn’t make it. The cliché that’s been rolled out so many times, it won’t feel like a World Cup without Italy there, is partially true. Italy’s non-qualification to the finals hurts this year. Furthermore, being an England fan hasn’t always been so easy.
being an England fan hasn’t always been so easy
One of my earliest memories was watching a rerun of England winning the World cup in 1966. This would have been 1970 (and probably a prelude to the Mexico World Cup and colour coverage). A fuzzy black and white screen reliving England’s greatest national football triumph. What did it all mean to the 4-year-old me? It started a slow-burn obsession with the national game. I don’t remember anything of that 1970 tournament, but most people you ask would probably ascertain it was the last time England had a team that could be ranked amongst the best – Gordon Banks’ save and Bobby Moore, the jewel thief. England’s defeat to Germany in the quarterfinals resumed the post-war football rivalry that for England has defined Germany as their greatest footballing nemesis. Just don’t mention the penalties.
Brazil’s final win against Italy at the 1970 WC is probably the most iconic in football history, at the least a relatable post-modern glimpse of the thrills of the beautiful game. Football, for a viewer, would never be the same again.
…a relatable post-modern glimpse of the thrills of the beautiful game. Football – as a viewer – would never be the same again
52 years of Hurt
Post-1970 the England national team had a dark period (as miserable as it’s ever been). Alf Ramsey still at the helm, didn’t last long post-Mexico and failed to lead the team to the finals in 1974 (a WC held in the then West Germany). I was fully following the tournament by this time and in love with Johan Cruyff and the Holland orange kits. Even Italy had a poor tournament not making it out of the group phase. I was a neutral spectator.
Leeds Utd former manager Don Revie destroyed his reputation as England’s coach post-Ramsey and 1974. Another no-show in Argentina in 1978 and all of a sudden England were in the international football wilderness. Brian Clough never got the England job post-Revie (Clough was regarded as the people’s choice) and a succession of managers from 1978 onwards have delivered mixed results for the national team, despite some fine footballers representing England.
Bobby Robson is the last occupant as England manager to leave something approaching a legacy: quarterfinals in 1986 and 4th position in 1990. Not bad, and a great England team to watch to boot. Mexico 1986 will be always remembered for Maradona and possibly the greatest individual performance by any player at a WC tournament. In the QF match against Argentina (the match that knocked England out of the finals), we had Maradona’s ‘hand of god’ goal followed by one of the greatest goals ever scored. I felt no shame in England being dismissed by the eventual winners and Maradona’s guile.
The focus on coaches is relevant. I’m a firm believer that a great coach can get any team of players performing to a standard if they have tactical discipline and nous behind them. Robson was very much a progressive manager and played to England’s strengths.
I’m a firm believer that a great coach can get any team of players performing to a standard
1990 in Italy was one of the first World Cups where I remember a silence descending over complete neighbourhoods in England whenever the national team played. The streets were empty as a nation got behind the team and cheered our plucky boys on (oh, the irony). Italia 90 gave us the heightened drama of a semifinal defeat to the German’s and Gazza’s tears. Football folklore. This subservient tournament viewing still exists, but it’s nowadays accompanied by a morbid fascination at the inevitable car-crash and lack of mental resilience the England team often display.
1990 in Italy was one of the first World Cups where I remember a silence descending over complete neighbourhoods in England whenever the national team played
The roots of this national inertia can probably be traced back to Graham Taylor’s period as England manager. An awful Euro 1992 was followed by non-qualification for the WC USA in 1994. Taylor would be humiliated by the UK press and nothing would be the same again for the national football team, at least not in the eyes of the English media. England FC had become open game for an unrelenting negative gaze that continues even more intensely to this modern day.
The Golden generation
Post-Taylor the England team had the short-term hope of Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle. Hoddle’s England were very good in 1998, but David Beckham’s red card did for us in one of the great WC games of the modern era.
Then, a succession of nearly-men (Howard Wilkinson & Kevin Keegan) before the permanently randy Swede Sven Goran Eriksson took over what was then perceived to be a new Golden Generation of English football talent in their prime. The reality proved to be dour and uninspiring – at least as regards the quality of football – excluding England’s appearance at the 2004 Euro Championship.
Eriksson apparently, had quality players at his disposal (and importantly the media’s belief) – 2002’s England WC team for South Korea/Japan featured (amongst others) Ashley Cole, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Teddy Sheringham, Owen Hargreaves and Joe Cole. The following 2006 tournament added the talents of Gary Neville, Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick. Two quarter final finishes were Eriksson’s comeback. Beating Germany 5-1 away from home in qualifying for the 2002 WC was probably Eriksson’s biggest achievement. My interest in England by this stage was on the wane. I still followed them, but as any England fan will tell you, why were players that looked so good in the Premiere League often so awful on the world stage?
as any England fan will tell you, why were players that looked so good in the Premiere League often so awful on the world stage?
Of course, England didn’t qualify for the 2006 WC in Germany (WTF), despite a side featuring much of that lauded Golden generation. In the event, Germany couldn’t do it. If England’s footballing nemesis are Germany, than the Germans don’t like to play Italy. I was in Finland by now, and it was a great World Cup to follow – Finland got in the mood. Italy’s semifinal win against Germany was more than memorable and the final itself against France will always be remembered for Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt.
Since Eriksson left as head coach, the de-facto tournament performances from the England team have been very poor. A form of attacking free flowing football never seems on the cards. What we have had are out of form players being picked (Wayne Rooney), injured players selected (Wayne Rooney) and lots of scratchy games where England haven’t really known what they’re doing.
A form of attacking free flowing football never seems on the cards
Fabio Capello’s reign as England manager promised much but delivered more disappointment. I was a big fan of Capello’s – and he had achieved great things as a club coach – in both achievement and style of football. The Italian’s pragmatism stalled as England simply didn’t have the discipline or quality of player to carry out his defensive first approach for his England team. England’s 4-1 defeat to Germany in the last round of 16 in South Africa 2010 epitomised the lack of defensive cohesiveness, even though the scoreline slightly flattered England’s biggest international rivals. Terrible officiating really cost England a game they dominated with Frank Lampard’s disallowed ghost goal and David James as goalkeeper all contributing to defeat. For all his Italian defensive know-how, Capello couldn’t get the basics right with his England team. The press went wild. Jingoistic headlines castigated ‘the other’ – no more foreigners would lead the England team to ultimate glory.
England’s appearance at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was brief under Roy Hodgson’s guidance. Players past their prime (the remnants of that Golden Generation) with some youthful exuberance in Raheem Sterling – ensured England were on the plane home from a tough group featuring Uruguay & Italy. Euro 2016 featured an England team with some new blood, but revealed amongst the mostly awful football a pretty gutless attitude whenever pressure was applied. The last 16 exit to Iceland seemed to personify 48 years of failure at International tournaments for England. At least I had Antonio Conte’s Italy to enjoy at that tournament, a manager who was able to harness the best from a decidedly average group of players. Italy showed England how a coach could galvanise a not stellar group of players into delivering more than their insubstantial parts suggested. The managers of Iceland Heimir Hallgrímsson and Lars Lagerbäck epitomised this even more, as did Chris Coleman for Wales.
I wasn’t initially convinced by Gareth Southgate’s appointment as England manager, a defender of some competence and part of the feted Golden Generation. But he’s slowly won me over. It doesn’t mean England will win the World Cup in 2018, but Southgate has impressed with his calm, thoughtful intelligence. He has applied basic functional reasoning behind his tactical and team selections. England qualified easily for the campaign (something they’ve manage quite well in recent years). But it’s the way Southgate has applied a tactical vision for his team, (mostly) picking players on form and discarding a lot of old wood from the England fold (Wayne Rooney, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Chris Smalling, Joe Hart and so on).
This has been a no-fuss approach and just getting the basics right. It hasn’t always been this way, so there is something refreshing happening now. Friendly games are never a barometer for how good anyone is, but pre-tournament there is an obvious togetherness about the team, with egos firmly checked. Southgate himself has communicated well with the media and shown a certain amount of charm. I’m warming to him. He feels like the only reasonable choice to take the team forward, whatever happens in Russia.
This has been a no-fuss approach and just getting the basics right. It hasn’t always been this way, so there is something refreshing happening now
Yes, expectations are low for this England team. But so they should be for a national side that haven’t won a knockout game at a major tournament for a whole generation, let alone a bloody trophy. But it feels like effective change has taken hold and the future could be progressive. That feeling will only hold until the two nil nil draws against Panama and Tunisia occur and the obvious defeat to Belgium sends us back home from Russia (with no love). It’s a nightmare scenario because right now we need Southgate and his solid pragmatism to work, for the England team to develop the youthful promise of this squad.
right now we need Southgate and his solid pragmatism to work, for the England team to develop the youthful promise of this squad
If England don’t make it out of the group the English (tabloid) media will be savage. The kind of savagery we’ve seen directed pre-WC at England forward Raheem Sterling. Sterling’s treatment by the English press goes beyond bullying to a place where notions of class and racism meet in a shouty bar and everyone ignores the white noise, because in 2018 we just can. The offence of being a young black player with new money is still something the English tabloid press can’t get their heads around. This goes deeper if a young black footballer is free thinking. People argue the treatment of Sterling isn’t racially motivated. They’re lying.
The contradiction here is massive. The England team, seen as a mentally week vessel, probably suffer most from the press intrusion and speculation. Their biggest pressure in Russia will mostly come from the media rather than a canny football opponent (this World Cup is incredibly open). Any sign of transgression or dodgy tattoo will be treated by the English media as a stain against the nation. This special media treatment informs the national psyche, a spiral of negativity has manifested itself on the national team. Overcome this negativity, and the England team may have a chance.
Sterling’s treatment by the English press goes beyond bullying but to a place where notions of class and racism meet in a shouty bar and everyone ignores the white noise, because in 2018 we just can
That’s why I’ll be cheering these men this summer. You never know in football, and this World Cup will bring surprises. It’s totally feasible that Harry Kane – the Dan Dare of football – top scores in this tournament and that Marcus Rashford is the best young player. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? And if it doesn’t happen this way, I’ll look forward Euro 2020 and see where Southgate takes the team then. Football most probably isn’t coming home, but now feels like as good a time as any to get behind a likeable England team and manager. If it all goes belly-up for England, I can still quite happily watch four weeks of football without getting too cut up about it.
Football most probably isn’t coming home, but now feels like as good a time as any to get behind a likeable England team and manager
My biggest wish is that hooliganism and racism are absent from Russia 2018. I know I’m pissing in the wind with such aspiration, but football needs a positive World Cup on and off the pitch.
football needs a positive World Cup on and off the pitch
If England get over their mental block and play with that much vaunted freedom Southgate mentions, quarterfinals is possible – and regardless of who they meet there, this could be Germany or Brazil – it would be a fine building block for the future. In my view, much depends on Harry Kane scoring goals. If Kane is on it, then England could go far.
As for the rest, Spain, I feel, will win it. With the most rounded squad at their disposal and with Isco especially to star. It would be a fine ending for the wonderful Andrés Iniesta’s last World Cup.
My tip for the biggest disappointment will be the current cup holders Germany. I know this is a ballsy shout, Joachim Löw is the preeminent coach of this international football generation, Germany’s record under him is incredible. Yet, I feel their group is tough (no easy games from Mexico, Sweden & South Korea). This German team lack a defensive midfielder of note and much will be expected of young forward Timo Werner. Other questions mark’s are how fit is captain Manuel Neuer? Will the off-field political ruminations surrounding İlkay Gündoğan disrupt the squad? Will Mesut Özil be fit? Pre-tournament form has been poor. Of course, Germany have great experience in these situations, and Löw is a canny coach, adapting his team to each opponent. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they fail to make it from the group stage.
France and Brazil should be competitive. With Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo approaching crunch time regarding World Cup tournaments, I expect them to carry their teams forward. My surprise team of Russia 2018? England.
Runners up: Brazil
Top scorer: Antoine Griezmann
Player of the tournament: Isco.