The time has come. Football is taking its rightful place on the center stage of the sporting calendar.
After literally four years and 1,432 days of waiting, the World Cup will once again become the focus of not only football but sports fans across the globe. The 2018 FIFA World Cup will occupy hundreds of hours of TV airtime, generate millions of written words, take over social media and, with any luck, give the watching world a football tournament worthy of a 180-minute highlights DVD.
The stadiums and Russian host cities are ready, and the fans are on their way. The players are preparing for their media duties and the pundits have their talking points at hand. The TV schedules have been set in stone, the sticker books are close to completion and the word “Russia” will be used to refer to something other than collusion for the next month or so.
But all of those factors are the side show to the main event.
Thirty-two of the finest footballing nations in the world are eager to not only get the tournament started but also show what they can achieve on the pitch. You also need to add into the mix the simple fact that there will be players whose transfer value and/or wages in the domestic game will likely increase if they have a successful World Cup.
As host nation, Russia will play the first game in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on June 14, with their fans hoping that home advantage will encourage them to win their match against the might of Saudi Arabia. Granted, that this does not have the same mouth-watering appeal as the last World Cup game—Germany vs Argentina in 2014—but will still be worth tuning in for. Probably.
After Russia complete their duties as the FIFA-endorsed hosts, there will be around 12 more games that could be worth either getting up for or taking time off work to watch. And then England play their first game in the Volgograd Arena. Which is when the tournament takes on an added edge for some of us.
Three Lions On My Shirt
It will not come as a shock that the majority of my focus in Russia will be on the England team.
Firstly, I am English. So I have to support my home nation.
Secondly, I follow English football on a daily basis. I wake up every day, reach for my smartphone and go straight to BBC Sport, where I normally look at the gossip first. After that, I head to the London Evening Standard website—printed copies went on sale from around 3 pm in the pre-digital age, hence the name—and check out, no surprises here, the football news.
Which brings me to the third reason for my current level of World Cup excitement/apprehension … Tottenham Hotspur. England has five Spurs players in the squad, and although I will naturally be cheering on every England player (might struggle a bit with Arsenal’s Danny Welbeck, don’t really like Chelsea’s Gary Cahill), there is an unstated rule that you want “your players” to set the tournament on fire.
At the same time, I do want certain countries to do better than others (Belgium, for example, will be my de-facto second team in Russia, three Spurs players) and I would love to see some of the footballing underdogs give the established nations a bit of a fright, but I need the Three Lions to do well.
The reason for this is simple … England have been relatively dreadful at the last two tournaments, held in South Africa (2010) and Brazil, respectively.
I know that qualification is supposed to be an achievement in itself, but the plain and simple truth is that I have become used to watching England embarrass themselves on a semi-regular basis for over forty years. With the obvious exception of Italy in 1990—got to semi-finals, lost on penalties, had players like Gary Lineker, Chris Waddle and Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne and Stuart “Psycho” Pearce, exceeded expectations —I have spent most tournaments watching with my hands over my face.
We were shameful in Brazil four years ago. Played three, lost two, drew one. Scored two goals (Sturridge, Rooney), conceded four, and the only point that we earned in the Group stage was a goalless draw against Costa Rica when we were already eliminated.
South Africa was marginally better.
And when I say marginally, I mean that we got out of the Group Stage by drawing with the U.S. (#robertgreenerror) and the mighty Algeria before scrambling a one-nil victory against Slovenia. We then got battered by Germany in the first knock-out round in a brutal display that will be familiar to any Cleveland Cavaliers fans who harbored hopes that they would not get swept 4-0 in the 2018 NBA Finals. For the record, England lost 4-1.
Losing to Germany is not something to be ashamed of. England have lost to Germany on numerous occasions.
But the footballers chosen to represent the country between 2001 and 2010 were supposed to be the golden generation who would lead us to the promised land of World Cup glory. Some of these players may be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the round ball game—Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen and David Beckham—but these individuals succeed in only raising our hopes … before we realized that England were just not very good, irrespective of who was wearing the shirt.
The litany of misery laced with fleeting moments of joy isn’t limited to the last eight years. Germany 2006, quarter finals, lost on penalties to Portugal. South Korea/Japan 2002, quarter finals, lost to Brazil. France 1998, lost in first knockout round to Argentina … on penalties. USA 1994, didn’t even qualify, arguably my second favorite tournament after Italy 1990.
And I still get irritated when I think about Mexico 86 and the “Hand of God”.
So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that I am approaching Russia 2018 with a level of enthusiasm that veers between unfounded optimism and a creeping dread.
1966 And All That
As one of only eight teams to actually win the World Cup, England are always under the microscope at the finals. Which is never a good thing.
As a result of being christened the home of football—our sword of Damocles—the level of expectation from both the fans and the media in England goes through the roof when the team qualifies for either the World Cup or the more localized Euros.
Factor in the argument that the English Premier League is the most watched domestic league in the world and there is some justification in expecting the team to do well at international tournaments. The reality is that our sole World Cup victory was over 50 years ago. And was watched by the majority of the country in black and white.
Annoyingly we have never won the Euros either. But that is a story for another day.
In the years since Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy (replaced by the World Cup following Mexico 1970) after beating West Germany at Wembley Stadium in 1966, the English national team has been known more for failing to win penalty shootouts rather than a successful tournament.
What makes it even more galling is that we have been almost ever-present at the finals themselves. With the exception of the 1970’s (failed to qualify for West Germany and Argentina) and the US-hosted tournament of 1994, the team has been on a plane to a FIFA-sponsored destination once every four years.
To rub more salt into the festering wound that underlines the inevitable failure of English participation on the world stage since 1966, Germany has won three tournaments, as have Brazil (one Jules Rimet, two World Cups). Italy and Argentina have snagged two apiece, while Spain and France have joined England as one-time winners.
We’re England, And We All Like Vindaloo
So will England win? The answer is very simple … no.
Not because we don’t have the talent—Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling are capable of being match-winners on their day—but this is the World Cup Finals. And if my forty-year-plus “career” of watching England in tournaments (which includes the Euros) has taught me anything, it is that they will fail to blow the bloody doors off.
We should get out of the group stage. England faces Tunisia, Panama and Belgium, and should have enough in the tank to beat at least two of them. Belgium will be the key game as it will likely determine not only the group winners but opponents in the round of 16.
Provided that the team doesn’t repeat its form from Brazil, that gives us Poland, Senegal, Columbia or Japan in the next round. Stumble through that and there is a chance we play either Brazil or Germany in the quarter finals. No prizes for guessing what the probable outcome of those matches will be … a penalty shootout. And a flight home.
Somewhat amusingly, sports data company Gracenote have predicted that England have a 4% chance of winning the World Cup … the same as Belgium and Portugal.
To put that into context, Gracenote give Peru a 5% chance of victory. According to the BBC, Brazil is the only team that the analyst gives any credit to, with their data—gathered after running one million tournament simulations—forecasting a 21% chance that the Seleção will lift the trophy in front of Vladimir Putin and his invited guests in Moscow on July 15.
The English media has, for once, been relatively relaxed about the national team’s chances of bringing the trophy home. The BBC’s Phil McNulty wrote that “England head for Russia with a rare sense of serenity,” while the Daily Mirror’s John Cross has said that Gareth Southgate’s squad selection is “bold, brave and beautiful,” although Cross (full disclosure: John is a personal friend) did admit that England does not have many world class players. Which is probably quite helpful at a tournament that Peru has more chance of winning.
And The Winner Is …
The optimist in me believes that most of the major football playing nations (which includes England) have the capacity to beat any of the other teams in the 2018 World Cup. Let’s not forget that football in Europe and South America is, to all intents and purposes, a religion … albeit one that provides tangible evidence on a regular basis that there really is no God.
Germany should have the skills to defeat anybody, the same can be said of Argentina, France, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Holland. The last two are notable absentees from Russia, and the tournament will (in my opinion) be poorer for that. Granted, Italian teams are always more likely to play sleep-inducing football, but the failure of the country (Holland) that gave us Total Football to make the short trip to the former Soviet Union is gutting on many levels.
My money is on Belgium. Purely down to the quality that they have in their squad (this is their Golden Generation, apparently) and the fact that I actually know who most of their players are.
All I know for certain is that for the next month, football will be a constant focus. I will be introduced to new players and watch global superstars strut their stuff. Media coverage will be constant, social media will be alive with pre- and post-match analysis and, hopefully, the matches themselves will live up to the standards required of the Beautiful Game.
Football probably won’t be coming home, but that is actually OK. England have failed so many times that anything other than embarrassment is a good thing. After all, if you start with low expectations, then any level of success is a bonus. And that is why I will still proudly sport the Three Lions on my shirt for the rest of June at least … until we probably lose to Germany in July. On penalties. Again.