The Euro 2012 tournament in Poland and Ukraine is an unusual one for England because, for possibly the first time since 1990, expectations in the media and amongst fans are low. Normally there’s a football frenzy and tabloid calls to emulate the 1966 spirit. Even though in reality England’s sole World Cup victory is today about as meaningful for current chances as the two World Cups won by Uruguay are for their position in the world of football now.
Italia 90 started with England being relatively unfancied and the media highly critical of Bobby Robson and his team. This was not helped by the lacklustre team performances in the group stage which we limped through and how close the team came to failing to win in the first knock out round against Belgium. Yet after that there came the pulsating game against the surprise package of Cameroon who had shocked the holders Argentina in their opening game and the semi final against West Germany which came down to the metaphorical coin toss of a penalty shoot out. It was by a long margin England’s best tournament performance other then 1966.
However, the European championships are in many ways a tougher challenge than World Cups. There are no real minnows even in the group stage, and with Greece having won the tournament in 2004 it would be foolhardy to write anyone off even if they looked as poor as the Republic of Ireland did against Croatia. If England qualifies through the group stage it will face, most likely, one of the last two winners of the World Cup, or a team which has managed to beat one or both of them.
Today, England faces a France team which is on a fine unbeaten run of 21 games with 15 wins in that time. Since 1990 and both England and France’s nadirs of failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, England has had a solitary semi final at home in the 96 European championship and no other tournament performances where (perhaps barring their exit to Argentina in 98) realistically you could say that the team merited progression to the semi finals.
So, England can take the unaccustomed role of underdog. The team has a lot of younger players who are far from household names, several being not even regular starters for the Premier League clubs they play for. They have a serious and thoughtful and, unusually for England, experienced and English manager in Roy Hodgson. Having few stars parading themselves like worldbeaters and missing Rooney through a typically needless suspension might mean that the team that actually plays can be unencumbered by their own egos and which might just appreciate the great honour of playing for England.
I hope, but don’t expect, and, for once, that healthy state seems to be shared generally.
Update 24 June
Well, so far so good! Unflashy, workmanlike performances against France and Sweden in the qualifying group established England as hard to beat but capable of enough invention to threaten up front even without Rooney. They also didn’t fall apart when things went against them or look like they just didn’t have “another gear” to go up when needed. The back four have, Terry apart, had decent pace, Terry’s experience at marshalling them and being able to read things well enough to compensate for when he’s caught out by faster attackers. Gerrard (curiously but not inappropriately autocorrected by my iPhone to Ferrari) has been both outstanding and consistent. Parker has been what in a mmorpg would be called a tank, sticking his body everywhere to stop opponents and balls being played forwards. Although perhaps crawling on all fours to head the ball away from an attacker’s foot is taking things a bit far! Walcott, Young and Oxlade-Chamberlain have provided pace and unpredictability going forward and both Welbeck and Carroll, while perhaps not being world class have done well up front.
Rooney’s return coincided with a dominant performance against Ukraine, sufficiently dominant that we were able to indulge Rooney missing at least two clear headed chances which Andy Carroll would have been likely to have scored. My preference in an ideal world might have been to have left a successful team alone and kept Rooney on the bench but, given the reaction of press and public to things like Graham Taylor substituting Gary Lineker in euro 92 when we needed a goal, can quite understand why Hodgson made the easier choice of reinstating Rooney, who is an excellent player.
Not that he looked anything other than rusty and as off the pace as someone who’d played no competitive football for over a month would be expected to look. Luckily for him and us he was able to put away an easy chance early in the second half to break his long dry spell in tournaments and slightly quieter critics like myself who thought we should make a change if we didn’t score in the first ten minutes of the half. In the event he has now had most of a full game to regain match sharpness and to fit into a team that won’t encourage him to the sort of desperate recklessness in chasing a game that would lead to another suspension and years more whatiffery.
So, now we play Italy for a semi final place against Germany. The Italians themselves have been unspectacular but adequate in qualifying for the quarter final. In many respects they are set up similarly to Hodgson’s England, being based on organisation and graft (no not the stuff of their latest corruption scandal!) which provides a base for creative players like Pirlo and the “unpredictable” Balotelli. Balotelli is clearly bonkers but in a time of dreariness in so much of life I can’t help but like his form of semi-contained chaos. He’s a bit of a contemporary Robin Friday, as the Super Furry Animals homage “Man Don’t Give a Fuck” could equally apply to him as his nonchalant overhead kick goal against the tournament’s weakest team, Ireland perhaps epitomised.
I won’t jinx things as I think Italy will still start as favourites. Their historical strength and record is impossible to ignore, having won the world cup only 6 years ago. Moreover, one of my bugbears is the trend for teams to have a star on their shirts to denote their World cup wins. England has one, spain has one (fair enough as holders). Notably, Italy with FOUR wins don’t bother with putting any stars on their jerseys. When England has won enough not to need to crow about it or hark back to a team whose remaining living members are in their seventies, that will be the point when we should stop being underdogs against the likes of Italy.
That said, although I still don’t think our due is to progress past tonight, England would not be flukes if they got through to the Final. And that is something we haven’t been able to say since most of the team were in junior school.
Update 27 June
So, we lost, on penalties again. Nevertheless it was a decent tournament performance for England. I’ve heard a few delusional people saying that it would have all been different had we appointed Harry Redknapp as manager or brought Rio Ferdinand and a couple of others into the squad. The more realistic will have realised that none of those things would have made a lot of difference. England doesn’t have a Pirlo, Cristiano Ronaldo or Fabregas either in the squad picked by Hodgson or back at home. We also don’t have any “world class” strikers other than the ring rusty Rooney.
The quarter finals are the par for England and we qualified for them well. In terms of recent records in the tournament we were the worst team at that stage (Portugal being beaten finalists in 2004, Greece having won in 2004, and the Czech Republic having made a semi final and a final since 1996; the records of Germany, Italy, France and Spain not needing to be repeated). Indeed, given the records of Russia and the Netherlands it wouldn’t be unfair to say that we were only just in the top ten countries at the tournament , let alone the top 8 or top 4.
So, barring an outstanding performance (which could fairly have taken us further than our rating would suggest) Hodgson’s team did well enough. In reality it is still hard to work out how Italy failed to score in the game so the team should take some credit for being solid enough to have taken the game to penalties.
If Hodgson can find a little more creativity and invention in attacking players at least there is the base for raising the target during qualification for the 2014 World Cup and hopefully carrying that into the tournament (perhaps with a draw as favourable as the one we had in 1990 where we only had to beat Belgium and Cameroon to make the semi-final).
As for the tournament which continues at the semi-final stage tonight at the moment the most comfortable and consistently performing side, as so often, is Germany. Then again that was how it seemed during the 2010 World Cup when they waltzed past England and Argentina before losing to Spain in the semi-final. They should be able to beat Italy who have had less time to recover after the gruelling game against England. Spain have not played brilliantly but may find that Portugal suit them as opponents better than anyone they’ve met so far. It would be historic if Spain managed to be the first country to retain the title but it is too close to call it between them and Germany.