Could England actually win the World Cup?

The depressing cycle of over-inflated expectations and dashed hopes has started again. Will England fans never learn?

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

I have a sad message for the people of South Africa: I probably won’t be able to make it next year. After attending the past three World Cups, I’ve decided that I won’t be able to come over next summer.

I was in a car crash in ’98 in France (even before England’s tragic exit to Argentina), I’ve sung ‘Are you Scotland in disguise?’ while we were leading Brazil in Shizuoka in 2002 (before England’s tragic exit in the same game) and stayed at an eco-organic hotel in Salzburg in 2006 where the only English language channel showed The Sound of Music on loop (before England’s tragic exit to Portugal). Before anyone points out the obvious, I know Salzburg is in Austria, not Germany, but we were passing…

Even the prospect of Table Mountain and the majesty of the veldt won’t be enough to persuade me this time, unless I win the lottery in the meantime. With five years to go, I’m gonna start saving my pennies for Brazil 2014. But maybe I should reconsider after Wednesday night when England thrashed mighty Croatia 5-1 at Wembley. Might I be missing out on the possibility of Being There when the Three Lions finally expunge 44 ‘years of hurt’? Can England actually win the World Cup?

The answer is: ‘Yes, but probably not.’ England are not the best team in the world. Brazil definitely look a better outfit than England. Spain have been beating everybody in the past few years (except, perversely, those giants of world football, the USA and, ahem, Northern Ireland). Germany almost always seem to play gestaltfußball in major tournaments, the emergent property being a capacity to win despite not having 11 players that are good enough.

The Dutch are always pretty useful. Italy and France are rubbish at the moment, but you can never write off teams with such good track records. They were rubbish in 2006, but they both still made the final. Argentina are even worse, mainly because their manager, Diego Maradona, is proving the rule that great players very rarely make great managers. If they sack him, the Argies should be right back in the mixer. I mean, any team with Lionel Messi in it should be fairly handy, something that is also true of any Portugal team with Ronaldo in it.

And then there’s the Africans. This is the first World Cup to be played on the continent and it’s about time one of the big African nations showed up. The Ivory Coast, with Drogba et al, should be a good team (and were namechecked by England boss Fabio Capello this week). Ghana have already qualified and Egypt beat world champions Italy in the Confederations Cup last year. South Africa have home advantage. Surely one or more of these teams can get deep into the later stages of the tournament this time round?

Having said all that, while there is plenty of competition, there is no team that England aren’t at least capable of beating. England have one genuinely world-class player (Wayne Rooney) and another handful that are very good (Gerrard, Lampard, Terry and Cole would be contenders for a place in most other teams). They also have a manager in Capello whose total self-belief is clearly rubbing off on the players. England are the top scorers in European qualification and have qualified more comfortably for this World Cup than ever before.

On the other hand, some of England’s old strengths are in question. They have struggled to keep clean sheets under Capello. They’ve managed it just three times in 10 competitive matches, and two of those were against Andorra, a team that rarely crosses the halfway line. Capello claims to know who his first-choice goalkeeper is, but no one else does. Robert Green played on Wednesday night, but has looked distinctly nervy. David James is the most experienced, but at 39 he’s no spring chicken and they don’t call him ‘Calamity James’ for nothing. Ben Foster looks the heir apparent, but will he even get a regular game for Manchester United this season?

Meanwhile, at right-back, the options seem even more limited. Glen Johnson, who seems to fancy himself as a fully fledged Brazilian-style wing-back, is the man in possession, but he’s not very reliable when he’s not the man in possession. On the opposite side of the pitch, Ashley Cole has the opposite problem: he’s become a (mostly) reliable left-back, but is quite simply the most over-rated attacking defender in the world. Has no one else noticed that he is incapable of crossing the ball or hitting a shot on target? Captain John Terry is a shoo-in, but the best people to partner him in the middle (like Ferdinand, King and Woodgate) are seeing more of the treatment table than the pitch these days.

Up front, Rooney is capable of genius, but he also got himself sent off in the quarter-final in 2006 so his temperament is not to be relied upon. His ‘striking’ partner, Emile Heskey, seems to think scoring goals is as unfashionable as apartheid. Jermaine Defoe, who is scoring lots of goals, is only good enough for the bench, apparently.

So, England have a flawed team. If Capello can sort out the defence and if his top players hit form, England will be a very good team. But even good teams need luck. In 1990, 1996 and 2002, England lost to the eventual tournament winners, so avoiding the best teams early on would be handy. They need to keep their best players fit and on the pitch, while being on the right side of a dodgy refereeing decision or two always helps (like South Korea in 2002).

Even if England entered the tournament as the best team in the world, there would still only be a 50-50 chance that they could win the World Cup. We should be deeply sceptical of the latest round of expectation inflating – but at least they’ll be there.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

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