The press and public reaction to the latest England squad underlined what we already knew; expectations are at a low point for the England team heading into the World Cup. Of course the return to fitness of Harry Kane will make a big difference but just what do we realistically aim for this summer?
How far can we go?
Even with limited resources failure to get out of a group that features Panama & Tunisia would represent failure. Had England drawn a tough group akin to the one they got in Brazil a group elimination could at least be understood but against limited opponents failure to qualify would have to be viewed as Iceland revisited.
Assuming they avoid that pitfall England’s potential last 16 England’s opponents would be one of Poland, Senegal, Colombia or Japan. Any of these teams would represent middleweight opposition with a couple of star players- perhaps sides not unlike England? If England did fall in a last 16 tie the manner of the exit, identify of the conqueror and performance on the night will all be factors to determine whether or not England’s World Cup could be considered a success. For example look at France ’98 where England’s 10 men lost on penalties to Argentina and compare that to Euro 2016 where England lost to Iceland in 90 minutes at the same stage of the tournament the difference is enormous.
If England make it to the quarter finals it would mean winning their first knock out match at a major tournament since 2006- get this far and England would be playing with the house’s money. It’s pointless to speculate on who England could play in a potential quarter-final given the number of variables but we can safely assume it’ll be someone good. Anything beyond a quarter-final would be a magnificent achievement and Gareth Southgate correctly pointed out at the draw there will be no limit on England’s ambitions this summer but success isn’t just defined by how far you get in a tournament
Going into the 2010 World Cup Germany wasn’t expecting much of its national team, they’d made it all the way to the Euro 2008 final only to be cut to ribbons by Xavi, Iniesta and Silva- if ever there was a 1-0 thrashing that was the it! Worse still star man Michael Ballack was injured and Germany had a paper-thin squad. But against expectations a new look team found new stars in Ozil, Boetang and Muller and notched 4 goals 3 times on their way to an eventual semi final exit to Spain. Expectations in Germany had been reset with this first wave of their new academy system and at Euro 2012, Brazil 2014 and beyond more new talents like Goetz, Kimmich, Hummels and Draxler were added to the cast that enter Russia as favourites.
It was a similar story in France 4 years later, coming off the humiliation of South Africa 2010 and a disastrous 2014 qualifying campaign new France boss Didier Deschamps found himself in the second leg of a qualifying playoff against Ukraine needing to turnaround a 0-2 deficit. So confident were the French of their team’s failure to even qualify for Brazil the nations favourite weather girl Doria Tillier promised to present the weather nude if they won through, guess what happened next?! Les Bleus won 3-0 at the Stade de France- probably causing consternation in the Tillier household but Doria did manage to keep her promise without losing her dignity. The following summer Deschamps side sparkled with Benzema, Griezmann and co making it through to the quarter-finals before eventually bowing out to Germany. Since then the addition of more young stars such as Dembele, Pogba & M’bappe have seen France make the final of Euro 2016 and enter this World Cup as serious contenders.
England need a tournament that provides a similar turnaround in national expectations, few seriously expect England to win this year but if a team featuring Kane, Alli, Rashford, Stones and Vardy can make a positive impact it will set a template for England’s successful youth sides to enter the international arena with the likes of Solanke, Foden, Sancho, Sessegnon & Mount providing the next wave of new players. England’s belief in its national side was reborn at Italia ’90 and that belief held up for the most part until South Africa 2010. Since that disastrous misadventure England’s status dropped even further in 2014 and reached an all-time low at Euro 2016. Few will spend early June decorating their cars in St Georges flags, but if more appear by the start of July it’s safe to say we’re heading in the right direction.