England expects. With the likes of Germany, Argentina, Portugal and Spain having already been eliminated from the tournament, the Three Lions now find themselves three games away from the World Cup final.
It sounds easy when written down, and given the way many have talked about England’s chances over the past couple of weeks you would be forgiven for believing they are a shoo-in to emerge from the bottom half of the draw to make the final in Moscow on Sunday week.
“The country has been euphoric. Everyone has been overly-positive in the last week. We should now be the most positive we have ever been,” Gary Neville told ITV following England’s loss to Belgium last Thursday. “That’s not being arrogant, that’s not being ignorant, we could lose against Colombia on Tuesday there is no doubt.”
And they could well lose to Colombia in the round of 16. Because not only are Colombia a dangerous proposition, with James Rodriguez potentially being fit to line up alongside other phenomenal attacking talents such as Juan Quintero, Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado, but it would be so very English to start running before we can walk.
Too often in the past us England fans have taken too much for granted. And so many times reality has quickly come back to bite us. The pervading theme ahead of the final group game against Belgium was of a need to throw the game in order to line up a more favourable route to the final. It was as if England are seasoned campaigners in the knockout rounds and could do with an easier ride than all the others they have previously been on to reach major finals.
But the bare facts are that England have been in one final ever. They have only made the semi-finals of a major tournament three times in history. Moreover, they have been abysmal when it comes to do-or-die football. In a total of 24 matches in the knockout stages of the World Cup or the European Championships, England have progressed nine times. Only five of those have come on foreign soil, and just three inside 90 minutes. For context, Germany have won 45 knockout ties .
The last knockout game an England side won was against Ecuador in 2006, and even that was an unconvincing 1-0 victory over a team most people had been delighting in the prospect of the Three Lions hammering. Since that day in Stuttgart, 16 different countries have won World Cup knockout matches and England have won none. That number goes up to 21 if you include the sides who have recorded wins in the Euros over the same 12-year span in which England have come up empty.
So why are Gareth Southgate’s side automatically going to be any different? Because they saw off the mighty Tunisia and Panama before that borefest loss to Belgium? Neville likened the current euphoria to 1990 when explaining why England should fancy their chances after accepting second place in their group.
“If you think back to 1990 where we had Cameroon and Belgium to get to a World Cup semi-final, we’ve now got an opportunity to play Colombia and Sweden or Switzerland to get to a World Cup semi-final,” he continued.
“In 1998 it was Argentina in round two, 2002 Brazil with Rivaldo and all those types of players in there, 2006 Ronaldo and Portugal, 2010 Germany, 2014 Italy and Uruguay in the group. A World Cup semi-final chance by beating Colombia and Sweden or Switzerland… those [England] players will be more positive than ever I think now.”
But it was exactly such thinking which nearly tripped Sir Bobby Robson’s England up in that very 1990 tournament of which he speaks.
The legendary late manager’s clumsy quote of: “We didn’t underestimate them, they were a lot better than we thought,” came after a 3-2 win after extra-time in the quarter-final against Cameroon during which England looked destined for the exit until being rescued by a Gary Lineker penalty seven minutes from time.
“How we got out of that game I’ll never know, Cameroon. They were unlucky,” reflected Robson when speaking to Lineker for a TV documentary some years later, and even in the round before they had been thoroughly outplayed by Belgium only to snatch a 119th-minute winner through David Platt.
“Just as Argentina stole a game from Brazil on Sunday in Turin, so England stole one from Belgium here Tuesday night,” reported Grahame Jones in the Los Angeles Times after that game in Bologna.
“The final score showed the English winning, but they were booed off the field by many in the crowd of 34,520. The reason was not hard to understand: Belgium played far more creative, imaginative and positive soccer.”
So even their most recent realistic tilt at a World Cup final was fraught with nail-biting moments as they played nerve-shredding negative football against modest footballing nations, and yet few seem to have learned the lesson of 28 years back. The talk around this England campaign to this point is threatening to build up an unhealthy expectation to match that one.
All of a sudden the public opinion has gone from England having no chance to them never having a better chance. But Colombia, Sweden, Switzerland, Croatia and Russia will be feeling exactly the same, and they will all fancy themselves against a nation which has a history of taking too much for granted. There is nothing wrong with having hope, but there is everything wrong with the kind of arrogance which has had people talking of “choosing” a route through the latter rounds.
Accepting Colombia in the last 16 to avoid Brazil in the quarter-final’ is nauseating presumption given England’s history, especially when considering that Jose Pekerman’s side have arguably beaten far better sides than have Southgate’s to this point. Lest we forget it is but two years since everybody seemed to have England paired up with France in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals already without even considering what a mess they could make of Iceland at this exact same stage.
England could well reach the World Cup final this year. With a little bit of luck they might even win it. But if they are to go deep in this competition, Southgate and his players will need a markedly better attitude to their opponents than has been displayed by the fans and media in recent days. Otherwise history will repeat itself again and the ‘years of hurt’ will threaten to go on and on.
England expects? Given that Turkey, Austria, Sweden, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Senegal all have a better strike rate in World Cup knockout games over the course of history, maybe England should wait for a couple more wins before getting too carried away.