Hard truth’s coming home
Beautiful game was never going back to England but that didn’t stop the hype
You wouldn’t have had Gareth Southgate down as the new Paul Daniels, but the England manager has pulled off a stunt as mesmeric as anything in the repertoire of the great illusionists Harry Houdini and David Copperfield.
Watching Southgate’s cast of players closely over a few short weeks, the English public had convinced themselves their team was going to win the World Cup.
Some trick, that.
When it comes to the possibility of sporting glory, English football pundits and media commentators are first to ramp up the gullibility factor.
In reality, despite appearing to be on the easier side of the draw, this England squad were about as certain to bring the elusive “football” home as Monty Python’s Knights of the Round Table were of getting to parade the mythical Holy Grail down Wembley Way in an open-top bus.
Despite the warning signs being there, the English public allowed themselves to become caught up in the dreamcatcher’s web of self-delusion.
And so, on what promised to be enshrined as a new national holiday, Waistcoat Wednesday became Straitjacket Saturday with England set to face Belgium, a team that beat them 1-0 at the group stage, to decide third place, tomorrow.
To many, the third-place play-off is a pointless exercise.
As manager Louis van Gaal stated at the last World Cup finals when his team, Holland had to face Brazil:, “In a tournament, you shouldn’t have players play a match for third or fourth place.
There’s only one award that counts, and that’s being world champion.”
England will have hardly have had time to grieve following their 2-1 defeat by Croatia before they have to kick-off again.
Dubbed “The Tie of Tears”, tomorrow’s match is between teams who know they’ve failed to achieve their aims.
Yet, FIFA insist on having them trot out to satisfy the TV networks.
While there’s much to admire in Southgate’s unflashy, methodical approach, the man has never been in the silk purse business.
Ever the realist, as he reflected on defeat on Wednesday night, the manager ruefully remarked, “You can’t guarantee those opportunities come again.”
It wasn’t England beating Tunisia 2-1 in their opening match that lit the touch paper of belief in the cities and shires.
It was the six goals they sent past Panama, a team making their first appearance at a World Cup finals, in a 6-1 rout, that got the war drums beating.
Defeat by Belgium was a blip. But, at least England avoided a possible quarter-final clash with Brazil.
Their last-16 match with Colombia ended 1-1 after extra time and went to penalties.
Haunted by his penalty miss experience in the Euro 96 semi-final against Germany, Southgate was meticulous in covering every aspect of the penalty-taking duel.
The manager’s detailed preparations helped win the day 3-4 and see England, having exorcised the ghosts of penalty failures past, march on bullishly to meet Sweden in the quarter-final.
But penalties and set-pieces, though crucial, are only part of the arsenal of champions.
Dazzled by the sheen of the Jules Rimet trophy, the pundits failed to see the weaknesses in the England squad. And there were many.
England have appeared well-drilled in Russia. They had a shape to them. They had a plan. A series of plans. Each one carefully worked out on the training pitch.
But, as England discovered on Wednesday, well-executed set plays are not enough against a team that has gifted playmakers and skilled individuals who are comfortable on the ball.
As Croatia’s Atletico Madrid right-back Sime Vrsaljko said afterwards: “The all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield. But when we pressed them, it turned out that they haven’t.”
Vrsaliko reminded us that the new-look England is really the old England with a makeover. Similar failings are part of the package.
It’s just that, this time around, likeable Southgate, the manager who went to console distressed Colombia players after the penalty shoot-out, became the dream figurehead that the English public wanted to believe in. The new understated Alf Ramsey.
England, the team who, it was conveniently forgotten, had scraped a late injury-time win against Tunisia, ultimately lacked composure and confident, skilful players capable of staying alert.
Maybe England are on a learning curve. Perhaps the majority of this young squad will have the ability to learn from this experience. Yes, England got to a World Cup semi-final for first time in 28 years. They’ll be a top seed team now.
Most teams in a World Cup finals play with passion, determination and pride. It’s the teams with skill, experience and strength of character that get to contest at the tournament’s closing stages.
Sometimes a team gets lucky and over-achieves.
Jordan Pickford, Kieran Trippier and Harry Maguire excelled and helped gild the English lily. But ultimately in Russia, England flattered to deceive.