As the final preparations are made for the biggest match in world football maybe we should ponder whether anyone really thought that England could win the World Cup this year? After disappointment at every tournament the Three Lions have contested since Sir Alf Ramsey’s team won the Jules Rimet trophy 44 years ago, are we not setting our expectations a little high of the national team?
The only time England has achieved at a World Cup was in 1966; in a very different era, and also on home turf.
But, as a nation, the English always go into major competition thinking it can win and deeming anything else to be failure. I love the passion and emotion in England surrounding World Cups and European Championships – St George flags start flying from cars and rooftops long before the domestic season finishes, let alone the world’s greatest sporting contest kicks off. The proportion of red and white filling stadiums in South Africa for England’s four matches was also very impressive.
As England supporters we are always setting ourselves up for a fall in this regard though. Hope rules our heart and rightly so because football is an emotive game but maybe our expectations stretch too far.
So what’s the reason for this? First of all we should consider that England’s performances in major tournaments has not been below par. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s excellent book Soccernomics lays bare some stark home truths surrounding England’s standing in the global football fraternity and concludes (basically) that England has not underachieved at all in major tournaments when the size of the country’s population and the nation’s wealth is taken into consideration with other footballing factors.
Yes, man-for-man, England has some of the world’s best players in its squad but in three of four matches played in South Africa those players did not show the standards we come to expect of our players in the Premier League. Fleeting glimpses of greatness were there but too few in between long stretches of nervous-looking under-confident players.
And here lies one of the biggest problems: Club is king in England. How many supporters, when it comes down to it would rather see their club side have a successful season domestically than watching England triumph over the course of one month in the summer? And how many fans could find a way of answering this question honestly?
The domestic season is the bread and butter of most English football fans for around nine months of the year. If I was a season ticket holder I would want to see my team winning every week or at least performing at the peak of their powers.
The players have the same problem. The likes of Wayne Rooney and John Terry are paid in excess of £100,000 per week to play for their club from the beginning of August to the beginning of May. They are expected to perform at the highest level throughout that time and the clubs expect a return on their investment.
Rooney had an outstanding season for Manchester United, scoring an outstanding 34 goals from 44 games in all competitions and was widely tipped to be one of the top performers in South Africa. But he wasn’t. Put plainly, by Rooney’s own very high standards, he was ineffectual at the World Cup.
Sir Alex Ferguson, Rooney’s club manager, insisted that the player was not injured at the tournament but it is worth remembering that the Scouse striker trod a fine line between injury and fitness in the latter stages of the 2009/10 Premier League campaign.
Rooney scored his last goal at Bayern Munich on March 30 and sustained an ankle injury that same night but was back in action a week later against the German side. It was the first of ten games Rooney has played since that night in Bavaria and he has not scored since. Rooney may not have been ‘injured’ but perhaps a genuine factor in his lack of form in South Africa was fatigue.
Ferguson has stated the weight of expectation on Rooney as a factor in his difficulties at the World Cup but how can that wash when the 24-year-old has the weight of expectation that comes with playing for the world’s biggest (and England’s most successful) club side every time he steps out for the Red Devils?
Of course Rooney should not be attributed any more responsibility for England’s World Cup disappointment than any other player in Fabio Capello’s squad. The fact is most of the players who took to the field in South Africa did not perform to the level that has become expected of them at their Premier League clubs.
The phrase ‘prima donna’ has been used a lot in the British press and comments like Jermaine Defoe’s about the expectations placed on the players will not be welcomed by England fans. Even less so the comments moaning about being bored at a top notch hotel during the World Cup campaign.
However, those England fans who are also Tottenham Hotspur supporters will probably forget about the World Cup pretty quickly if Defoe is banging in the goals for Spurs before Christmas.
Of course, England coach Capello has also taken a hammering for his part in the team’s fortunes and a finger is always going to be pointed at the coach in such circumstances. Some of his decisions can judgements can certainly be called into question but his coaching history is one of the best in Europe and perhaps the fact that he has not been able to work with the players on a more regular basis as (he would have done at a club side) has been a learning curve for the Italian.
The fact is though that too many players looked nervous, overcautious, complacent or simply tired. And that cannot be attributed to the coach. Most of the England players play a high tempo game with at least a month of pre-season training (often involving trips to America, Asia or Australia) followed by nine months of high stakes Premier League and Champions League matches. Should we really expect them to be able to perform for another full month thousands of miles from home at the World Cup and not lose a single match to bring home the most coveted prize on planet football?
Thankfully for most England fans they can now concentrate on their regular sporting passion. All Premier League and Football League clubs will be back in pre-season training now. After a time of dejection optimism will reign for a few weeks now until the domestic season kicks off. Then the real football begins again.
The next World Cup takes place in Brazil in 2014. Can we foresee any reason why England could win the tournament in four years? I think not. The next best chance for England may come in 2018 if The FA wins the right to host the competition. The passion for a World Cup on home soil in England would be immense but at least we’ve already got the excuse for a lack of success – the weight of expectation could prove too much.