Football: It is possible to forget that England's overall World Cup record is nothing much to shout about
Thursday 04 December 1997
"A blow to England's hopes" was one way, the most popular, of looking at it, doubtless bringing up, typically in the minds of many patriots, the notion that bias is another of the difficulties Glenn Hoddle and his men will have to overcome in France next summer.
To suggest a snub was arrant nonsense. England were not seeded because failure to qualify for the finals in the United States four years ago left them without enough points in a complicated ratings procedure.
Bias? Think back to 1966 when England, much to the disgust of their most powerful rivals, were permitted the extraordinary advantage of attempting to win the World Cup without leaving Wembley.
When the draw for that tournament was made at a hotel in west London I fell into conversation with officials from Brazil and West Germany, who were convinced that it had been set up in England's favour. They muttered darkly about the influence of Sir Stanley Rous who was then president of Fifa, the sport's world governing body.
In the case of Argentina, who had their captain, Antonio Rattin, sent off in an infamous quarter-final against England, this developed into paranoia. "It is impossible for us to win the World Cup because Rous has set the referees against us," a member of their delegation grumbled.
Many Germans still share the view that Geoff Hurst's second goal against them in the 1966 final should not have stood. "It was impossible for anyone to tell and in a match of that importance we should have been given the benefit of the doubt," West Germany's coach, Helmut Schon, said. Another remark passed waspishly at the time was that the Soviet linesman Tofik Bakhramov had Stalingrad in mind when signalling the legitimacy of Hurst's effort.
There is a lot more to World Cups than meets the eye. Shortly before Brazil were drawn in the same group as England for the 1970 finals in Mexico their coach, Joao Saldanha, soon to be succeeded by Mario Zagallo, launched a propaganda assault on European football. "From the violent tackling I saw there recently it will be a very difficult tournament for the referees," Saldanha said.
Sir Alf Ramsey was furious. "This man is simply preparing the way for Brazil," he said. "It is a blatant attempt to influence the match officials in Brazil's favour."
The narrow victory that enabled Brazil to top England's group opened up the possibility that they would meet again in the final. It made them nervous. "Our players will be remembering that we only just defeated England in Rio last year," Saldanha said, "they can be very superstitious. In a World Cup it is necessary to think not only about the next match but what it could lead to."
Fifa's responsibility is to produce a balanced tournament and an authentic champion. Generally, as history shows, this works out to the satisfaction of most people.
Something for bettors to bear in mind is that 67 years of World Cup competition has produced only six champions: Brazil (4), Germany (3), Italy (3), Argentina (2), Uruguay and England (1). Another is that Brazil are the only South American team to have won the World Cup (Sweden 1958) in Europe.
When it comes to assessing their team's potential, Scottish supporters are always likely to descend into a twilight of reason, but past performances in the finals and pretty obvious limitations indicate further disappointment.
With long practice it also is possible to forget that England's overall record in the World Cup is nothing much to shout about. Including their one victory they have only twice advanced to the semi-finals. Germany by comparison have appeared in six of 15 finals.
If completely out of character, Ramsey's bold assertion that England would win the 1966 World Cup after being grouped with France, Mexico and Uruguay was based on the advantage of familiar territory and the outstanding players available to him.
Hoddle, like Ramsey a former Tottenham player, appears to be taking a similar risk with the burden of expectation. This week he has been heard speaking confidently about England's chances, making much of the belief that some of his lesser-known players will startle the opposition.
There is not a great deal wrong in this, but closer to the time he might well sense the need for discretion. He's right about one thing though. To have a chance of winning the World Cup, you'd better believe that you can beat the best teams out there.
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