The English disease

June 24, 2010 § 1 Comment

One of these four teams will reach the semi-finals: Uruguay; USA; South Korea; Ghana.

And one of these four teams will reach the semi-finals: Germany; Mexico; Argentina; England.

England, had they scored one more goal in any of their three group games, would have taken the place of the USA in the first group. The prospective path to the semi-finals – the stage that most would view as a successful tournament – would have been Ghana, then Uruguay or South Korea. Instead, they have to beat Germany, and then Mexico or Argentina. If England do make it that far, they’ll certainly have earned it.

However, it doesn’t look good. While this German team may have flattered to deceive a touch in the steam-rollering of Australia, they are a young and energetic side blessed with great technical ability, and they attack fluently, in numbers and at speed. Apart from inexperience, the most notable weakness is the centre of defence, where Mertesacker and Freidrich make Terry and Carragher look mobile. They may also be missing Schweinsteiger from a central midfield already denuded by injury: Rolfes, Trasch and Ballack all limped out of the squad before the tournament began. However, the influential and precocious Mesut Oezil looks likely to be fit. Assessed player for player, and taking into account their performances so far, I make Germany slight-but-definite favourites.

But England are also fighting their own history. Before the tournament, my brother remarked that it doesn’t really matter what stage England get to: the pattern is that they go through until they meet a decent team, and then they go out. Looking back through at England’s record in World Cup knock-out stages since 1966, this holds true:

2006 (out in QF) – beat Ecuador 1-0, then lost to Portugal on penalties after a 0-0 draw;

2002 (QF) – beat Denmark 3-0 (Heskey!), then lost to Brazil 2-1;

1998 (2nd round) – lost to Argentina on penalties after a 2-2 draw;

1990 (SF) – beat Belgium 1-0 (aet), then beat Cameroon 3-2 (aet), then out to W. Germany on penalties after a 1-1 draw;

1986 (QF) – beat Paraguay 3-0, then lost to Argentina 2-1 (Maradona!);

1982 – a slightly weird one. The format was for a two group stages, the second feeding directly into the semi-finals. England were eliminated in the second group stage after goalless draws with Spain and West Germany. While they left the tournament unbeaten, no goals in the two key games is, I think, indicative.

1970 (QF) – lost to West Germany 3-2 (aet).

The fact that 1990 was a semi-final while 1998 was a second-round tie is, in a qualitative sense, irrelevant (though it does rather neatly reinforce the importance of winning your group). While the worth of any given World Cup team tends to be measured by the stage it reaches, the real value of a team lies in the victories, and the value of those victories is contingent upon the quality of the opposition. And since 1966, all English World Cup teams can be assessed as being of roughly the same value, in a qualitative sense, irrespective of how far they progressed through the tournament: better than any team that couldn’t win, not as good as any team that could. 

It’s instructive to note that, since 1966, the only time that England have beaten a World Cup-winning nation at the finals was the 1-0 victory over Argentina in 2002, and that came in the group stages. (To give England credit, they were pretty good, though it was never a penalty. And look out for Beckham’s comedy dive just before Owen’s.) Also worth noting is that since the FIFA world rankings were introduced in January 1993, England have only once beaten a team ranked above them in the knock-out stages of a major tournament (Spain, on penalties, in Euro ’96). England have their place in world football: firmly and securely in the mezzanine.

The other interesting thing about the exits above – certainly the recent ones – is that England tend to have played better in their defeats than in the preceding victories. It’s been well documented that the 1990 squad started dreadfully, only waking up in the 94th minute against Belgium, then scraping past a suspension-hit Cameroon, before pushing an excellent Germany all the way to penalties. Similarly, 1998’s heroic draw against Argentina came just eight days after the risible loss to Romania. And the limp performance against Ecuador in 2006 prompted some magnificently disdainful brickbats, before ten-man England nearly nicked it against the Portuguese.

Danny Baker has been telling all and sundry that England aren’t yet playing well enough to go out, and he’s right. If they are true to themselves – true to their World Cup nature – they will play well, and lose, this Sunday. And if they do, they won’t be any worse than the sainted 1990 team that rode a favourable draw to the semi-finals, before crashing out. They’ll still be the same old England.

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