Can England overcome 50 years of World Cup disappointment in Russia?
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Over half a century after winning the World Cup for the first – and, so far, last – time in 1966, England face Tunisia in their June 18 opener with a promising, youthful team. Can they overcome decades of disappointment to make inroads in Russia?
England is the nation in which football is believed to have originated in the Middle Ages and in which the game’s rules were codified in 1863. But despite this, and despite (or, perhaps, because of) the persistant glow of that much-celebrated World Cup victory, 1996 was the last time England reached the semi-finals of a major competition.
To mark Euro 96, which was hosted on home soil, the English band The Lightning Seeds collaborated with comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner to provide the national team with its unofficial sporting anthem, "Three Lions".
The song starts with a voiceover of choleric Scottish football analyst Alan Hansen saying, “I think it’s bad news for the English game,” followed by legendary former England midfielder Trevor Brooking’s indictment of the team’s playing style: “We’re not creative enough, we’re not positive enough.”
On top of this voiceover, the singers chant, “It’s coming home … it’s coming home …”, building up to a raucous chorus of “I remember / Three Lions on the shirt / Jules Rimet still gleaming / Thirty years of hurt / Never stopped me dreaming / […] Football’s coming home”.
Disappointing ‘Golden Generation’
But 30 years have now become more than 50. Hopes were highest for England’s so-called Golden Generation of the 2000s. The team was awash with stars who repeatedly won silverware at top clubs – the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney, to name but a few.
However, England crashed out of the 2002 World Cup in the quarter-finals with a 2-1 defeat to Brazil. In 2006, Portugal’s penalty shoot-out victory sent England home at the same stage.
England even failed to qualify for Euro 2008 before scraping through the group stage at the 2010 World Cup, only to receive a 4-1 thrashing from Germany in the second round.
Fans’ high hopes were much more of a curse than a blessing, suggested former Manchester United and England centre-back Rio Ferdinand. “It upped the expectations because people called us the 'Golden Generation' and people expected us to win silverware,” he told The Guardian in 2014.
“I don’t think we played with freedom in an England shirt.”
Perhaps today's dampened expectations will have a liberating effect.
Belgium are the only major team in England’s group. Tunisia have not won a World Cup match since 1982; Panama had hitherto never managed to qualify.
Consequently, it is difficult to imagine that England will exit at the group stage. But the British press have wisely refrained from their previous habit of greeting England’s opponents with hubristic headlines – such as The Sun’s infamous front-page proclamation that the Three Lions’ 2010 group was "EASY".
And with the last remnants of the Golden Generation gone, a new set of young English players are entering their prime without the burden of the nation’s vertiginously high hopes.
Star player Kane
England’s star player and captain, 24-year-old Tottenham forward Harry Kane, has outstripped the achievements of the Golden Generation's most garlanded strikers, Rooney and Michael Owen. In December 2017, Kane became the first Premiership player to score six hat-tricks in one year. With 56 goals in all competitions during 2017, he was Europe’s top goalscorer for that calendar year.
While Kane is the constant first name on the team sheet, Three Lions’ manager Gareth Southgate has a range of other impressive options up front. Manchester City’s 23-year-old striker Raheem Sterling, who tends to play on the ring wing of the attack, has scored in nearly a third of his club appearances since going to the Etihad in 2015.
That’s while 20-year-old Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford shows sometimes explosive raw talent – as displayed in his spectacular 25-yard thunderbolt in England’s June 7 friendly victory over Costa Rica – and 31-year-old Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy remains a potent attacking force, two years after helping propel his club to an astonishing Premiership title.
Nor are England short of quality midfielders. Spurs’ 22-year-old Dele Alli plays with impressive positional fluidity – managing to score 37 goals in 106 appearances for his club since joining them in 2015, despite being based in a relatively central position. His probable attacking midfield partner is Manchester United’s 25-year-old Jesse Lingard, who notched up eight goals and five assists in 33 games for his club during the 2017-18 season.
Behind Alli and Lingard, Jordan Henderson is likely to start a defensive midfielder, bringing solid experience of competing at the highest club level, having recently captained Liverpool in a run to the Champions League final.
Henderson will guard a defensive trio, of which Manchester City’s 24-year-old centre-back John Stones is likely to be the linchpin. Having made 18 appearances in the club’s barnstorming march to 2017-18 Premiership victory, Stones has stood out amongst English defenders for his archetypically Continental talent for playing from the back.
His Manchester City teammate Kyle Walker is a strong prospect for the right of England’s back three, on the back of 32 appearances for the title-winners last season – although he will have competition from Manchester United’s Phil Jones, especially seeing as the Red Devils came out on top for Premiership clean sheets in 2017-18.
However, while the Three Lions’ first-choice goalie – 24-year-old Jordan Pickford – has impressed since joining Everton in 2017, he has yet to gain experience in a major international club tournament and has so far accrued a mere three caps for the senior England team.
Likewise, Leicester City’s 25-year-old Harry Maguire has been touted as Southgate’s likely choice for the left side of the defence but has no experience at the highest level of club football, the Champions League, combined with little experience of the international game with only five senior England caps. Chelsea’s Gary Cahill is the obvious alternative to Maguire, but he was dropped by his club towards the end of last season due to poor form.
Meanwhile, the likes of Rashford, Lingard and even Stones have been inconsistent starting 11 picks for their clubs during the 2017-18 season, placing some doubt on their ability to play consistently in the top echelons of the game.
The first big test of England’s youthful squad will be the clash against Belgium on June 28. If Southgate’s team can defeat a side centred around Manchester City playmaker Kevin de Bruyne, Chelsea attacking midfielder Eden Hazard and Manchester United poacher Romalu Lukaku, perhaps England fans can be forgiven for hoping that their dreams of a half-century will finally come true.