England shirt – check, beer or other appropriate beverage to enhance euphoria or combat despair – check, junk food aplenty – check, confirmed time of kick-off – check, have no doubts that England will win the World Cup – can I get back to you on that one?
So here we are friends, about to embark on a new World Cup campaign. We have a squad of decent players, a manager with an excellent CV and we have (hopefully!) been practicing those penalties we all love so much. The bookies have England as favourites to win the World Cup…after Spain, Brazil and Argentina, of course, but do such acknowledgements really do us any good or do they merely derail our charge before it’s even begun?
We all know England won the World Cup in 1966, that we beat West Germany and that every time a new tournament begins we’re not content with just hoping we’ll win it but we often fervently believe we will. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I can be negative about England. I’ve watched us in the World Cups (1998, 2002 and 2006) and have heard enough about previous tournaments to know we always seem to choke on the big stage. We’re a patriotic nation, always wanting to do well in our sports, but do we overburden our heroes/heroines in waiting with over-expectation? We all remember poor Tiger Tim in the tennis. He never won a Grand Slam yet every time Wimbledon came round the so-called experts were in no doubt he could easily win the tournament. Sadly, he never did. The same pressure is hindering Andy Murray at present and has plagued England for more than four decades. There is some hope for us at least. Both Italy and, in particular, Spain were notorious for crumbling under pressure but both have since redeemed themselves with respective wins at the World Cup 2006 and Euro 2008. I believe England can do the same but as a nation our perception of our beloved Three Lions needs to change.
We’re all proud of winning the World Cup, even though it was 44 years ago, but is it right for the media and fans to put the expectation of at least the semi-finals on England’s shoulders? We haven’t won a tournament for a long time, football has changed a lot since the 1960s and no team should believe they have a divine right to win, it must always be earned. Let’s not forget that Uruguay have won the World Cup as well but no one expects them to go on and win it this year. I’d read reports mentioning an England/Brazil semi-final before a ball had even been kicked. Yes, it could happen but it’s dangerous to assume either team will progress that far. Let’s not forget all the teams at the World Cup are there because they deserve to be; they were the best in their respective qualifying groups and not one of them should be underestimated. What I’m trying to say is I don’t believe it’s unpatriotic to turn round and lower our expectations of England. Why don’t we focus on one game at a time, refrain from saying if we beat this team we’ll play so and so in the quarters or semis. As good a team as England are, they are not unbeatable, no team is.
I believe one of the problems with our team is facing a backlash from the media and fans if we falter. Gareth Southgate at Euro 96, David Beckham at France 98, Phil Neville at Euro 2000, all have been scapegoats for England’s failures, in fact, anyone that misses a penalty is frowned upon. Beckham, in particular, endured two years of torment before redeeming himself with that free-kick against Greece.
I won’t deny that England have been extremely unlucky since 1966: Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God” and penalty shoot-out defeats to Germany (1990), Argentina (1998) and Portugal (2006). Penalties are never easy, the pressure must be intense, yet our players can score them without fuss for their clubs but not for their nation. Hopefully, our luck will change, it happened to Italy four years ago, so why not us?
As a nation we’ll all be united this evening in watching our boys against the USA. Let’s keep the belief in our hearts that we can do well and win the World Cup, but in our minds let’s be realistic, lower our expectations and say to ourselves that wherever we finish (group stages, quarter finals, semi-finals, final) we will be proud and accept defeat so long as England have given it their all. If they don’t perform then we’re within out rights to voice our discontent. Teams should go out of a tournament fighting, not with a whimper. I’ve no doubt if the England players knew we were asking them to just do their best then they would play with less fear and more freedom. England’s time will come: maybe, just maybe, it can be this year.
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