By Jay Jaffa
On the eve of the World Cup 2014 draw, Roy Hodgson offered his thoughts ahead of the showpiece tournament next summer, stating: ”We respect everybody, we don’t fear anybody.” Of course as the manager of England, Hodgson has to show a bold front but the reality couldn’t be more different.
The England delegation will head to the draw on Friday in Costa do Sauipe, Bahia knowing that the permutations of being in pot four make it highly probable Hodgson will be trying to negotiate his way out of one of the tougher of eight groups. Meanwhile the bookmakers, those ever so shrewd folk, offer prices ranging from 25/1 to 28/1 on an England triumph.
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Expectation has always played tricks on the national team, whether it be in qualifying or on the big stage and 2010 saw Fabio Capello’s team play within themselves as they mustered just three goals in four games. Draws with USA and Algeria were World Cup lows for a proud nation before Joachim Low’s formidable Germans routed them 4-1. It was embarrassing.
But the convoluted qualifying campaign for Brazil and a pair of Wembley defeats to a fantastically entertaining Chile and a second-string Germany have seen hopes for next summer dashed (if they hadn't been already).
Steven Gerrard told Fifa's official website on Thursday that low expectations would help: “You go into a World Cup where people judge you fairly and they’re not blowing you up to what you’re not and there’s not too much pressure or expectations on the players. I’m sure that will help us.”
Truly. Expectations are low.
It was the same in 2001, where England narrowly avoided dropping into the playoffs with David Beckham’s last-gasp free-kick winner against Greece. The group in South Korea contained eternal enemies Argentina and produced one of the most iconic results in England’s modern history.
If the draw does pan out as many expect, at least this time around England will be pushed to their very maximum. The support for England is always vociferous but entering Brazil with the underdog tag will create a siege mentality for the entire duration - in stark contrast to the boos that led Wayne Rooney to respond with an expletive-ridden rant at the cameras in South Africa.
It shouldn’t be understated that this will be one of the greatest spectacles in generations. A World Cup in Brazil - the spiritual home of football. Perhaps only if Fifa took their showpiece to England would we see such fervour surrounding a four-week international tournament. This just doesn’t come around often.
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Almost two million tickets have been sold to fans around the world and that figure will rise with the next batch going on sale on December 8 after the group draw is known. A World Cup always endeavours to bring fans across the globe to each temporary home but this feels special.
Hodgson and his team have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in the tournament everybody wanted to experience. Where they end up is neither here nor there at the moment. The mystique and buoyant way of life in Brazil already seems to have permeated the England camp and the message has reflected that.
Even Hodgson is thinking about extra-curricular activities. "I'm thinking maybe I'm lucky as I now prefer this hotel to the one we had as our first choice in Ipanema," he added. "We would not have been able to get to the beach there."
Of course it is facetious to cherry-pick quotes like this from the England manager and not mention that the overriding message has followed the 'no fear' party line. Bring them all on. "We know whoever we play we're capable of winning or losing the match."
Fundamentally it will be the fans who make this the extravaganza the world expects. It may be a cliche but it will feel like a month long carnival. From Manaus to Porto Alegre and everywhere in-between this will be a party like no other.
And it is what World Cup football should be about. Not staff and players moaning about their accommodation, or critics lambasting the quality of the latest football or the altitude or unfinished stadia. It should be about fun. Heading to Brazil, Hodgson should be the envy of many of the men who came before him.
His team has plenty of faults. There is no discernible style, a porous defence, an out-of-form No.1 and a short supply of genuine technicians. The qualifying campaign was messy, friendly results awry and subsequently a ball in pot four will have England’s name on it.
But does it matter? No-one expects England to win the trophy for the first time since 1966. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who expects the Three Lions to hit the quarter-finals and by Friday evening it’s entirely likely that you’d struggle to grab a fan confident of cruising out of the group.
So file this under ‘the pressure’s off, enjoy your time’. Barring an absolute disaster, Hodgson almost has a free pass for this tournament - much like he did in 2012. Keep expectations low and enjoy the ride.
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