Perhaps England’s fate was sealed the moment Bobby Charlton, clutching his Olympic torch over the weekend, declared: “I think we can win it.” Such unbridled optimism – in the face of the facts – is bound to go unrewarded.
What is it about England and its football team? The entire first XI could be hobbling on crutches and the manager stricken by Mad Cow Disease, but one vaguely rousing press conference, and cue flag-waving, cheesy pop songs, and TV-montage-driven dreams that this time – this time – England will fulfill expectations.
Before Euro 2012 we were continually told that expectations were probably the lowest they had been since 1970
Before Euro 2012 we were continually told that those expectations were the lowest they had been for a long time. Probably since 1970, when the team went into the Brazil World Cup as the holders (and got knocked out by West Germany in the quarter-finals.)
England’s games in Ukraine and Poland should have done little to raise the refreshingly modest estimation of their chances. They drew 1-1 against a lacklustre France side; they tussled with the mighty Sweden and prevailed with at least one, if not two, flukey goals (oh, come on – Theo Walcott looked as surprised as anyone when his shot went in, and Danny Welbeck’s glancing back-heeled effort was so improbable, he is surely in debt to the footballing gods for many a season); and to win the group, England ‘thrashed’ co-hosts Ukraine 1-0, spending much of the match defending in their own half.
The well-organised defensive tactics that Roy Hodgson’s team now employs has attracted a certain amount of admiration, particularly within footballing circles, if not from the casual fan tempted to the pub by cheap jugs of lager. And there’s no doubting that Hodgson has instilled an impressive resilience to a national side that has often had a soft centre (Steve McClaren’s England particularly springs to mind).
This newfound strength, this ‘unbeatability’, was again much in evidence against Italy, and combined with an equally notable team spirit, there was pleasure to be taken from an England performance that showed some maturity.
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It’s a ‘great base’ to build from everyone keeps saying – and they’re not wrong. England fans can hope that skill and flair and attacking intent will follow in the months and years to come (they should put the kettle on, though – it may be a long wait). However, should they have let dreams of Euro 2012 success get so big? No, all the evidence was there to the contrary – and Bobby Charlton should know better.
At least the England vs Italy quarter-final provided a bit of drama and intrigue. Some Ronaldo theatrics aside, the other three fixtures were fairly predictable affairs. The highlight was some cracking goals from Germany (and the Greece fans’ loud booing of Angela Merkel when she appeared on a giant screen); the low point was a French team that appeared to have one eye on the post-match cappuccinos in their languid defeat against Spain.
So, for the England team, the song remains the same. In a scary, unpredictable world, perhaps the nation should take comfort from this. Now there are three things certain in life: death, taxes… and England losing on penalties.