Could England Surprise in Rio?

by Nathaniel Shaughnessy

The World Cup kicks off in less 24 hours, in fact by the time of publication, it may even be underway. Yet before a ball has been kicked – Roy Hodgson’s England find themselves written off by the fans and English media alike. Stark contrast to the usual unbridled (and usually unrealistic) expectation placed on the team. A comparison of the best World Cup betting odds for the last five tournaments is telling:

Roy Hodgson England1998 – 8/1

2002 – 9/1

2006 – 8/1

2010 – 6/1

2014 – 28/1

However, strangely, this time around there may actually be cause for optimism. Perhaps fifty years of hurt has killed any hope that even the most optimistic of fans might have, and to be fair – England are certainly not going to win it, but the youth in this squad and freshness of many of the players might be enough to lead England as far as the quarters or the semi finals, whilst winning a few hearts in the process, and this surely must be seen as progress. It was mad to suggest our chances of winning it were 6/1 in 2010, in fact I’d say we had less chance of winning it then than we do now, yet bizarrely that is the case and other than people being a bit fed up of letting hope get the better of them, I can’t quite understand why. Outlined below are three reasons to be cautiously optimistic about England’s chances in Brazil:

1. The youth

As opposed to previous tournaments, England have a young, promising team. Just a cursory glance at England’s 2010 World Cup Squad shows the likes of David James (39), Emile Heskey (32), Jamie Carragher (32) and only four players under the age of 25. This time round, we have ten players under 25, including key first team-ers such as Jack Wilshere, Daniel Sturridge, Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Raheem Sterling and potentially Ross Barkley and Luke Shaw. Rather than the usual bunch of failed ‘golden age’ misfits, this is a new experience for many of these players and one that they will relish.

With much of the young English talent also coming from Liverpool and Arsenal, they are accustomed to an exciting breed of attacking football – nothing like the dull, uninspiring drab we’ve been treated to for as long as I can remember. True, all this potential failed to come to fruition in the friendlies against Ecuador and Honduras, but these were physical games and England were understandably erring on the side of caution and playing in second gear. Expect much better when faced with competitive fixtures. The raw talent and fearlessness of this team, if not necessarily enough to win the tournament, may at least help them better the 20% level of possession managed in the defeat to Italy at Euro 2012.

2. The opposition

England’s group is rightly billed as one of the hardest ones, and as such many expect a group stage exit. However, when you really look at it man-for-man, I came to the conclusion that England might just be the best in the group. They have quality all over the pitch, including an experienced and proven defence, a perfectly balanced midfield and perhaps one of the top five (in form) strikers in the world in Daniel Sturridge. Whilst Italy and Uruguay also have quality: Pirlo, Balotelli, Marchisio, Cavani, Suarez, Godin – England seem to have the best balance and the most consistently world class players in all positions.

Indeed, there are only maybe two or three players in the England first team who wouldn’t make it into at the very least the squads of Germany and Spain. Certainly, there are more this time round than there have been for a while who would be in with a look in at one of the top, top countries. Secondly, if they are to get out their group, one of Colombia, Japan, Ivory Coast or Greece awaits. All are extremely beatable by England’s standards and before they know it, they could end up two games off the final. By the quarter finals there will be no easy games and they cannot expect to get any further without beating Spain or Argentina (depending on whether they finish first or second in their group). However, reaching the quarter finals and in the process playing decent attacking football would be a huge step in the right direction, and a weaker than usual quality of opposition in their first four games could certainly help this become a reality.

3. A lack of expectation

This might have been overplayed in Poland and Ukraine slightly, in fact the whole ‘lack of expectation’ thing two years ago ended up being a source of expectation. That said, the pressure piled on the England team was still nothing comparable to the days of 2002, 2004 and 2006. And look how the team performed, we weren’t actually that bad! We got out of a tough group, which included France in it, and held eventual runners up Italy to a draw over 120 minutes. With even less expectation and sense of ‘nothing to lose’ who knows what this tournament may yield. Someone said to me the other day the only time in living memory they can remember being this much widespread cynicism pre-Tournament was Italia 90, now what true England fan wouldn’t take a repeat of that this time around?

Just to be clear, I don’t for one second think England are going to win Brazil 2014. I would probably deserve to be sectioned if I did. However, I look at the current young team – many of whom are positive, fast, exciting players and then I look at England’s group and what awaits us in the first knockout round and I can’t help but feel this might not be so bad after all. It’s going to take a huge slice of luck for England to get past the quarter finals, where one of Spain or Argentina will surely await, and then asking for anything beyond that is fantastical. But what this tournament could do is provide a fantastic experience for all the young players, giving them something to build upon in future tournaments.

I for one am excited to see how England get on and am confident they are going to get out of the group stage. From there, the quarter finals isn’t too much for ask for. But let the cynicism long continue, because as long as it exists the players will be fearless and free to play their own game – and no one could deny that is the type of situation that yields the best results, just look at Liverpool’s 2013-14 season.

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