The Fifty-Year Fall from Grace

Euro 2012 failureThere are now less than one hundred days until the biggest sporting event in the world opens its doors again. No single world event is as eagerly anticipated as the FIFA World Cup. However, one country in particular is a mainstay at the tournament, yet its overriding emotion ahead of each edition is very rarely optimism.

There was a time when England, The Three Lions, Albion, was one of the most feared nations in international football. It is a given that this was the case in the era of Tom Finney, and Stanleys Mortensen and Matthews, but it remained the case all the way through until around 1970. England had, by this point, achieved victory in the sacred 1966 World Cup, regularly won the British Home Championships, and were still a force to be reckoned with. The Kevin Keegan years, however, were English football’s equivalent of the 2008 financial crash. There were failures to qualify for the 1974 and 1978 World Cups – both of which included appearances by neighbours and bitter rivals Scotland…

The semi-final appearances at Italia ’90 and Euro ’96 are recalled almost as often as the triumph of Bobby and Bobby, simply because they were so rare. Since Gareth Southgate’s failed penalty sent the nation into mourning, the England team has undoubtedly accumulated a list, almost as long as prior to this, of truly world class players. Very few of these, of course, have been defensive players, but then when were England famous for being defensively sound? England’s midfield of the mid-2000s was among the best in the world. Consecutive defeats to Portugal is all that could be ‘celebrated’, though. Since Germany’s World Cup in 2006, English football has hit a new, rock bottom. The umbrella days followed – and there were more than just one.

Attempting to keep Croatia at bay on that gloomy November night in 2007 was the first of many occasions in the past decade where international football has seemed out of favour – not just off the pitch, but on it. South Africa in 2010 was arguably worse, because to fall behind Croatia and Russia has a two-percent level of respectability. To not win a group containing the USA, Algeria and Slovenia stoops to one-percent. Roy Hodgson came in as an emergency replacement to the riled and underachieving Fabio Capello, and actually managed some decent football at Euro 2012. Again though, penalties were the destiny, and the destiny was failure. The World Cup in Brazil was England’s first ever group-stage crash-out. They made out-dated, defensive sides, qui s’appelles Italy and Uruguay, look like world-beaters when they simply were not. Victory against Costa Rica also eluded the former World Cup winners. The bookmakers presumably celebrated like crazy after that: cashing out at the bureau-de-no-change.

UEFA Euro 2016 defied all odds. This was a whole new kettle of fish. This fish managed to include a little bit of everything that fans despise about watching England. To start off, there was a last-minute equaliser against the arch-enemies of any English hooligan – Russia. Demoralising. Next we saw the Three Lions a goal down to another of the home nations – Wales. Embarrassing. To complete the group-stage, there was a goalless draw with tiny Slovakia – born of a needless meddling with the starting eleven from out-of-his-depth-Roy. Depressing. England scraped through to the last 16, where a last-minute goal in Iceland’s final group game confirmed it would be them that England would play, and not Portugal.

Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Wayne Rooney dismantled Iceland for 4 minutes. After this point, the Three Lions had already secured a priceless early goal courtesy of Wayne Rooney’s seventh tournament goal. What happened next, needless to say, is the darkest hour in England’s football history. The harrowing thought that Iceland’s only party-piece – the long throw – bought them the equaliser was, well, harrowing. After 18 minutes, Iceland took the lead. Read that again.

Between Iceland’s second goal and the full-time whistle, there were seventy-six minutes of play. They only bought about two goal-scoring opportunities, and both were Iceland’s. The population of this country is less than the population of Leicester, whose Premier League victory had touched the hearts of millions. In seventy-six minutes England could not find the net against a semi-professional goalkeeper, famous not for his football but for his directing of Iceland’s 2012 Eurovision entry. Iceland made the European Championships quarter-finals. England went home. Inexcusable.

Two years on from the most embarrassing defeat since England first fielded a football team in 1872, the nation has struggled to move on. Each tournament seems to go worse than the last one did. Surely that is bound to change. A tally of zero points from games against Tunisia, Panama and Belgium would probably be worse than Euro 2016, but is that really likely? There is now a feeling among fans that England matches on the world stage cannot truly be enjoyed. Nail biting continues to the skin and every England goal seems to come as a surprise. The Premier League cannot be solely to blame, because England squads only include players getting genuine game time – unless they’re Roy Hodgson’s, and include a certain unfit and unready Arsenal midfielder…

As the World Cup nears, no one knows what to expect. Fans do not know where England’s destiny lies; Gareth Southgate has no clue whether his side will perform; and the players have no clue of how successful they will be. England produces a wealth of young, successful footballing talent, but with their sole major trophy a whole half-century ago, their place in football’s A-list is no more. Portugal and Spain were teams of unrealised potential up until Euro 2008 bought about the modern-day Spanish Armada. In spite of the array of talent from Argentina’s sides since 2010, it isn’t Lionel Messi that holds a major international honour – but Cristiano Ronaldo, for Portugal, at Euro 2016. The fall from grace of the Netherlands and of Italy is nothing short of monumental, but England have fallen flat on their faces themselves. Their freakish run of ridiculously easy qualifying groups continues, and, ultimately, the most recent ended in success last October. However, it is only these fixtures with San Marino, Lithuania and Malta that secure The Three Lions’s place at tournaments. The England team has only ever reached one semi-final on its travels. That is not good enough.

The England fans have been forced to watch a horrific run in tournaments since Euro ‘96. There may well be a time when England are expected to progress to the latter-stages of tournaments once more. But we are not there yet. The majority of the population would consider a quarter-final defeat as a success for England this summer. Given their run of potential games, this looks very achievable. Touch wood.

No one expects England to win the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and nor should they. Because it won’t happen. All that is demanded is that the players put up a fight, that they look like they want to be there, and that they feel they should remain there [for longer than a fortnight]. The nation hasn’t watched an England knockout victory since 2006. Twelve years is a long time, and that barren run may not end this year, but it should. Fans of the Three Lions have seen enough disappointments now. It’s time for all of that to end. They’re ready to observe Gareth Southgate navigate England through a successful tournament. England fans are deserving of that now.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup will have a victor that isn’t England. But its latter stages needs to include England, to keep alive the honour of representing The Three Lions. After all, this is an honour that has been heralded the pinnacle of any Englishman’s football career for one-hundred-and-forty-six years. For that to change would be a true tragedy.

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