The football World Cup gets underway this evening, when hosts and tournament favourites Brazil take on Croatia tonight in Sao Paulo. England face Italy two days later in a contest that promises to shape both team’s fortunes, but are fans of the Three Lions right to be generally pessimistic? Dom Kureen explores.
Amazingly, it was 18 years ago that football came home for Euro ’96, with English fans treated to a roller coaster ride that ultimately fell from the tracks at the penultimate hurdle, when old foes Germany expertly dispatched half a dozen penalties before Gareth Southgate famously had his spot-kick saved, to deny a first major tournament final for England since they raised the Jules Rimet trophy aloft on home soil thirty years earlier.
In the ensuing period since that heroic defeat fan forecasts have become progressively less ambitious, understandable when comparing the current crop to a 1996 team that included the likes of Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham, Paul Gascoigne, Paul Ince, Stuart Pearce, Tony Adams and David Seaman – all of whom were at or close to their peak during the mid-1990’s.
Glenn Hoddle’s 1998 World Cup setup was exciting enough, with the emergence of Michael Owen as an 18 year-old superstar eventually overshadowed by David Beckham’s daft red card and another penalty shoot-out exit, this time at the hands of a handy Argentina side.
Kevin Keegan had a go in 2000, but the job was ultimately ‘too big’ for the man dubbed ‘Mighty Mouse’ by legions of Hamburg supporters during his time as a player in the Bundesliga.
It was Phil Neville’s scatter-brained penalty area lunge into Romania’s Viorel Moldovan that ensured a last-gasp 3-2 defeat in the final group game, meaning that England failed to make the knockout stages of that year’s European Championships.
Sven Goran Eriksson was appointed based on a stellar CV forged in Serie A. Despite impressive qualifying results, the Swede’s Midas touch deserted him at the major tournaments and his successor, Steve McLaren, is probably best known for looking thoroughly miserable under an umbrella on the sidelines, having overseen a pathetic attempt to qualify for Euro 2008.
Fabio Capello was the next in line and started well, before his initial lustre wore away relatively swiftly. The respected veteran appeared distrustful towards some of his key players, with the likes of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard often performing well below their capabilities in competitive matches.
That leads us to Roy Hodgson, the present incumbent of one of football’s hottest seats – a safe appointment in reaction to the unsuccessful tenure of disciplinarian Capello.
Hodgson has done a lot of things well over the past couple of years at the helm, perhaps most prevalent of which was to exhibit faith in vibrant youth players trusted to integrate with faithful servants such as Gerrard, Rooney and Frank Lampard.
Also notable was the manager’s low-key response regarding Ross Barkley, after the Everton youngster gave an outstanding audition for a starting place in a recent friendly against Ecuador.
Refusing to fuel tabloid hyperbole suggesting that England had found their new Paul Gascoigne, Hodgson told gathered reporters:
We believe in him, but people shouldn’t be suggesting our World Cup should be hinging on his performance. He should be an England player for many years to come.
The 2014 World Cup will be an experimental one for England, with the likes of Barkley, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling all novices on this prominent stage.
What we can expect therefore is to witness the building blocks of the national team’s future slotting further into place over the next few weeks, with the side’s greatest asset the potential bubbling under the surface.
Daniel Sturridge adds invaluable calibre in front of goal and has shown flashes of intricate, dynamic link-up with Rooney. If Sterling fills the void on the right hand side then England could have an exceptionally exciting three man front-line.
At the other end Joe Hart is among the elite custodians in the sport, but has an unreliable defence in front of him that will require an exhaustive amount of babysitting from captain Gerrard.
England will do well to qualify from their group, although an ageing Italian squad, inspired by talismanic 35-year old Andrea Pirlo, is unlikely to cause the same anxiety as the one that knocked England out of Euro 2012 on penalties.
Uruguay have some special players among their attackers, notably Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, but lack quality in defensive areas, something which the pace and guile of messrs Sterling, Barkley, Lallana and Sturridge can exploit.
Costa Rica have already been labelled as the whipping boys of Group D, although to dismiss them so lightly is a recipe for complacency.
Difficult to break down, ‘La Sele’ will turn to super-talented, irritatingly inconsistent former Fulham striker Bryan Ruiz to inspire their forays forward.
Prediction: Italy should win the group despite travelling with a clutch of weather-worn 30-somethings, with England tussling with Uruguay for the runners-up slot. The Three Lions will make the last-16, but probably fall at the second hurdle.