Then the draw threw up the mavericks of Colombia. Glenn Hoddle's previously satisfied half-smile turned to that concerned look newsreaders adopt for medium-sized earthquakes. Sepp Blatter, Fifa's general secretary and a German, despite his fluent performance in French as he appeared to audition to host the Eurovision Song Contest, seemed almost to suppress a snigger. The English had their come-uppance.
Though carefully managed for geographical and televisual purposes, the World Cup draw was not quite that Machiavellian, of course. However, despite the assertions on BBC television of Jimmy Hill and Alan Hansen - mischievously in the Scot's case perhaps - that England should qualify comfortably from Group G, and all the favourable reaction since, what was beginning to look like as comfortable a task as is possible in a finals took a twist towards the tough.
"Tricky," England's Euro 96 captain Tony Adams told me shortly after he had picked up the draw on Teletext. "Very tricky. People will be expecting us to qualify now and that could be the stumbling block. The onus and expectation will be on England and though, let's face it, we should get through, the reality of it is very difficult."
The opposite is the case for Scotland. The spectre of Brazil, whom they play in the tournament's opening match at St Denis on 10 June - probably the best time to meet them - stands tall over them but their manager Craig Brown is realistic. And accurate. "We are playing for second place," he said. Thus expectations are naturally lower. The prospect of Matt Elliott marking Ronaldo is pregnant with possibilities.
The Scots have, though, an outstanding chance of reaching the second round. Norway are likely to be less powerful thanmany may expect though Morocco - ranked 16th in the world to Scotland's 30th - may be more troublesome. The Norwegians flattered in qualifying for USA 94 only to deceive in the heat of summer and could do so again. In addition, the Scots saw off Scandinavian opposition in qualifying, even though Sweden, who finished third last time around, are declining more swiftly than Norway.
At least England can avoid the Brazilians until the final, though that is being wildly optimistic. First things first, and even the prospect of Tunisia, in Marseilles on Monday 15 June carries historical concern. In 1986, England were held 0-0 in a group match by their neighbours Morocco at the Mexico finals.
Next, a week later in Toulouse, Romania will present the most difficult task and between now and then Hoddle will no doubt be consulting the Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy, whose team held the Romanians to a draw in their last qualifying match after they had won their previous nine.
Though ageing, the Romanians remain an exciting attacking team, the nucleus of the side - Dan Petrescu, Gica Popescu, Georghe Hagi and Marius Lacatus - still that which won the best game of USA 94 when they beat a Maradona- less Argentina 3-2 in the second round, before losing on penalties in the quarter-finals to the less flamboyant, more functional Swedes. They will undoubtedly wane as the competition goes on but can be expected to be dangerous early on.
Even at two-thirds pace, the Romanians almost embarrassed England at Wembley in a warm-up match for Euro 96. "It was my first game as captain," Adams said. "They were a good side. They passed the ball really nicely and took us apart in the first half-hour." Indeed before Robert Lee scored an equaliser on his debut and Terry Venables had sorted out tactical deficiencies, the Romanians might even have been out of sight.
Then come Colombia on Friday 26 June in Lens, which should at least seem like a home game for England, being only some 70 miles south of Calais. "They're very unpredictable," Adams said. "If we get them on a good day we could be in trouble. We have to hope we get them on a bad one." They can perhaps be summed up by two players; the scorpion-kicking goalkeeper Rene Higuita who can make a mistake as big as a house, and Tino Asprilla who can score hat-tricks against Barcelona.
It was surprising that Colombia found themselves in the fourth pool given their record in qualifying - third place not too far behind Argentina and Paraguay in the South American league. While they capitulated curiously to the United States four years ago when among the favourites to win the tournament, they remain capable of defeating even the best.
A proposed friendly match at Wembley in February between England and Colombia has been called off, with Argentina likely to provide the opposition instead. Then again, if England finish runners-up in their group and the Argentinians win Group H, the pair would meet in the second round.
Another scenario is that England win their group and face the runners- up of Group H, possibly Croatia. The winners then would go on possibly to face the team that wins Group F. That could be, let us brace ourselves, Germany. From there it is a short hop to a semi-final against perhaps Italy or France, which would actually hold fewer terrors.
Everyone will need to be overcome at some stage, though, if England are to live up to their potential. Certainly Alex Ferguson, whose Manchester United could provide half of the national team, believes that the country can win the tournament.
"I think this is an encouraging spell for English football. There has been an improvement," he said on the day after the draw, his Scottishness barely begrudging the words. "I think England have a great chance of winning the World Cup. The best chance for a long time, since they bent the ref at Wembley in 1966."
Maybe, but the English game has known too many false dawns to become complacent on the back of a semi-final place at a European Championship it hosted and a goalless draw in Italy. Yes, it could have been worse, with the Spain-Nigeria group threatening at one stage, but while Romania, Colombia and Tunisia may not represent the very peaks of the world game, they are at the least arduous foothills that premature triumphalism insults.
Bloated the tournament may be with 32 nations, but at least this time around the formula is simple enough with two teams from each group qualifying, unlike four years ago when only eight of 24 teams were eliminated after the group phase and a complicated system let in four third-placed teams from the six groups.
England should indeed be one of those two from Group G though a little more modesty might not go amiss as recognition of their own fallibility and their opponents' capabilities. After all, as Glenn Hoddle should know, it is written somewhere that the meek will inherit the earth.Reuse content