Quite apart from the fact that they are playing away, England will face a further serious disadvantage for Wednesday's game in France – technical inferiority, according to Trevor Francis.
Capped 52 times for his country in a 10-year international career, Francis spent five years honing his striking skills in Italy back in the days when such a move was still an adventurous rarity, and he insists it boosted and broadened his knowledge and perception of the game.
"It is only a friendly and France aren't at the level they were a few years ago," says Francis. "But when you compare the 11 they will put out against our best 11, technically they will be superior. In France, and most other European countries, they spend far more time mastering the ball and honing their skills."
Football in England, he feels, is a Catch-22 situation. "There is so much to enjoy about our game. The Premier League is so popular because it is exciting; it is watched all over the world and draws huge attendances here.
"But the way we play football is so detrimental to the national team. Because we play at such a high tempo, far higher thanthe French, Italians and Spanish, we are expected to dominate, and when we don't, it is a big disappointment."
Francis, 53, is certain that unless English club football changes its attitude and style, the consequences will be dire. "We only won the World Cup in 1966 because it was played here in England," he says. "I don't think we will ever win it again, regardless of who our coach is."
Francis, whose accent still carries the burr of his Plymouth background, scored 119 goals in 280 appearances for Birmingham City from 1971-79 before becoming the first £1 million English footballer with Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest. A further 28 goals in three years there, including the one that won the European Cup in 1979, plus another dozen for Manchester City, convinced Sampdoria to take him to Italy in 1982, but the way they wanted him to play his football came as a shock.
"The Sampdoria coach imme-diately ordered me to curtail my running in order to keep myself fresh when the ball came in and around the penalty box. In England you are always looking, as a front player, to make runs into the wider areas, but they pointed out I was going to be judged on how many goals I got [17 in 68 games] and it was more difficult to score there.
"In countries like Italy the technical side of the game is far superior. Here there is a huge emphasis on fitness, running ability and closing down the opposition. Continentals don't play at the same pace and they are much more comfortable receiving the ball and retaining possession. So when it comes to international level many of our players find it hard. This was very much the case when I was in the England team. I learned more about technique in my few years in Italy than in my previous 12 in England."
The different interpretation of referees is another big factor. "In Europe they blow their whistle far more often, so players have more confidence to dwell on the ball and retain possession because the merest contact wins them a free-kick. I was con-stantly given free-kicks in Italy, but when I came back here I was being caught in possession and expecting free-kicks that weren't given. So then you get very nervous about keeping the ball."
Francis, who casts an expert eye on the English and Spanish Leagues in his Sky commentaries, is also adamant that both countries are being adversely affected by the proliferation of foreign imports: "The Spanish national team is already having similar problems to those which Fabio Capello will face with England."
This is already under consideration by Fifa, whose president, Sepp Blatter, is calling for a minimum of six home players in teams at club level, a proposal which will be voted on at the next Fifa congress in May and which is supported by the likes of the Uefa president, Michel Platini, and Bayern Munich's president, Franz Beckenbauer.
Francis would go further. He is in favour of the system which prevailed when he played in Italy of a maximum of two foreigners per team. "I started with Liam Brady in midfield. When he left he was replaced by Graeme Sou-ness, so I was spoiled for choice." And the solution for English football? "We don't get the balance right in terms of fitness and technical work. It has to be hammered in between six and 16. Too many of our youngsters join a professional club at 16 far behind in their development compared to abroad. When you get to a professional club you should already have mastered the art of manipulating a football, because with the hectic schedule of first-team football there is not sufficient time to work on it.
"The introduction of foreign coaches has opened our eyes more, but it has been a case of having to. For many years we were lagging badly, technically we were always very naïve. Things are improving now, but we are still lacking in terms of our tactical nous."
There are some assets, though, which should remain precious to the English game, says Francis – "competitiveness, aggression and a never-say-die attitude are great pluses". Whether these will be enough to deal with France we will find out shortly.Reuse content