Thursday, 3 July 2014

Brief Encounter

England’s latest World Cup stay was shorter than a holiday romance

Averaging three goals a game over the first week of the tournament, the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil has already established itself as the best such competition in years.  With a refreshing absence of the cagey affairs one normally associates with the group stages, teams literally threw themselves forward – witness the second half of Germany v Ghana. It's a trait that has hitherto continued into the knockout stages - witness Belgium v USA!
And it has to be said that even England joined the party, albeit briefly.  The opening game against Italy had me more excited than at any World Cup since France ’98.  Rarely, if ever, have I watched an England team so committed to attack and carrying as much pace going forward.  Unfortunately, mistakes and lapses at the other end – so often in the past the bedrock of England’s usual progress to a quarter-final exit – meant the game was lost.
Six days later a 2-1 loss to Uruguay and Italy’s defeat by Costa Rica confirmed England’s exit at the group stages of a World Cup Finals for the first time since 1958.  The following Tuesday Roy Hodgson's team were on their way home.  They had taken just the one point from three matches; ironically that coming from a 0-0 draw against group winners Costa Rica who had already accounted for most people's favourites, Uruguay and Italy.
While I watched the Costa Rica "dead rubber" in frustration from the comfort of my armchair (I didn't see the point in again wasting money at the pub), several thousand England fans had made the costly trip to South America, many arriving after their team's elimination had already been confirmed.  As such their loyalty is to be commended, especially the 7,000 or so in Belo Horizonte who stood for ages after the final whistle of the final game hailing their, erm, heroes...
"The scenes afterwards in Belo were also superb. A poor team being supported until the end. Congas, new songs, and upbeat support. Fantastic. Homages to Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney, Hodgson and the rest of the side that 'the man in the pub' would never understand. Support unquestioned. Thats not to say England fans are happy with performances. Not good enough. One day we will be back though. Support still stays until then." Dean Cornish (England fan) via Twitter
Of course, despite the pre-tournament lack of expectation from what had been agreed beforehand by public and punters was a squad selected with the future in mind, the knives were being sharpened as soon as Suarez struck home his decisive second in Sao Paolo.  
Soon we had the usual outpourings of hurt, frustration and anger on the various platforms available.  Twitter went into overdrive as did the various radio phone-ins.  BBC 5 Live, a station that does these tournaments so well, suddenly became a no-go area for those of a nervous – or in my case pro-Hodgson – disposition.
This for me was the most disappointing aspect.  Aside from the usual suspects and those with an anti-Hodgson agenda (step forward the majority of football writers at The Daily Mail) most observers had seen much to take comfort in from England’s first game and accepted that overall progress was being made in the right direction.  Yet all of a sudden pundits and public alike reverted to the usual hunt for scapegoats.  And most looked no further than the manager.  Or Rooney.
This annoyed me.  For whereas the exits at Germany 2006 or in South Africa four years ago had me totally fed up with the state of the game in this country, this one left me far more philosophical - as well as far less inclined to direct the sort of fire at Hodgson that Capello's stewardship had more than deserved.
The problems with England go - and have gone for years - much higher than the manager. And while I often find him opportunistic, I have to agree with Chris Waddle (often the BBC's critic-in-chief on these occasions) when he rants about the Premier League and the lack of quality grassroots coaching, not to mention his fears that none of the exciting crop of youngsters will kick on for Euro 2016.  Indeed, Paul Hayward probably hit the nail on the head most accurately in a fine piece for the Daily Telegraph, which looked beyond the manager when apportioning most of the blame. 
Thankfully, he wasn't alone in this.  Henry Winter is consistently on the ball in his appraisal of the national team and remained so this time, first by acknowledging that Hodgson remains the only man capable of trying to tackle the "impossible job" then offering up further advice on the way forward.  And, praise the Lord, even the Daily Mail has at least one man standing up for the beleaguered boss!
In short, I think Michael Owen summed things up as well as anyone in this quote from a piece for the Daily Telegraph:
“You can analyse his tactics as much as you like, but ultimately both games were lost due to a combination of wasteful finishing at one end and a more clinical approach at the other, aided by our defensive mistakes. Unlike in South Africa, we did not bore the rest of the world, and there was no great systematic failure like we witnessed against Germany in Bloemfontein.
“England have not been completely overrun or outplayed for prolonged periods. Quite the contrary, both matches ebbed and flowed. We just do not have enough world class players to make a difference in the way Luis Suárez did for Uruguay.”
In Roy we (still) trust. Roll on the Euros!

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