When England were drawn against Slovenia, Algeria and the United States in Group C of the 2010 World Cup, The Sun front page proclaimed “EASY – England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks”. The Daily Mail called it the “Group of Joy” that had “handed Capello the ideal route to emulate Sir Alf”. These pages proclaimed “Phew! That’ll do for starters”.
By the time England were taken apart by the young Germany team in Bloemfontein on 27 June, no-one was thanking their lucky stars for a group that featured none of the heavyweights of world football. Fabio Capello’s team had squeaked out of Group C in second place with the squad in disarray and their World Cup campaign having never got out of second gear.
It is an odd mentality that prays for an easy route through a World Cup finals, as if it might be possible to play Macau, Somalia and Gosport Borough en route to a place in the final 16 of the tournament. Whatever the easy-draw lobby might have hoped for in the 2014 World Cup finals draw in Salvador, it was evident that what they got in England’s Group D was not that – but it is hardly the end of the world.
Drawn against Uruguay (Fifa ranking 6th), Italy (Fifa ranking, 7th) and Costa Rica (Fifa ranking, 31st), this is a tough one for Roy Hodgson’s team. They must make the 3,400 mile round trip to Manaus, for their first game on 14 June local time which will, nonetheless, be against Italy another European team who, although used to warmer climates, will find the humidity just as much of a shock.
Yet, if England are travelling to Brazil on the back of the lowest expectations of success at the tournament post-1994 then there is little to lose for Hodgson’s men. If they make it out of Group D they will have achieved something. Certainly more than the narrow escape from the group stages they made in 2010 with a 1-0 win over Slovenia which, coupled with the United States’ late win over Algeria consigned England to second place and a meeting with the Germans.
One way or another, England will find out very quickly in Brazil what kind of team they are going to be at this World Cup. Much more preferable to the false dawns and stuttering starts of last time around.
Naturally, both Italy and Uruguay have pricked the English inferiority complex. So it took a Spaniard with an encyclopaedic knowledge of football, Roberto Martinez, the Everton manager, to point out on the BBC that Italy were not the same side that beat England at Euro 2012 on penalties and that Andrea Pirlo has a bad knee ligament injury.
That aside, both those top 10 Fifa-ranked teams, with the likes of Mario Balotelli and Luis Suarez, will present a huge challenge to England. Roy Hodgson pointed out soon after the draw that Jürgen Klinsmann, the United States head coach, had warned him of the capabilities of Costa Rica with whom the US shared a qualifying group.
Although Manaus and the Amazonia Arena is the one venue that Hodgson has said he did not want – expect a Football Association charm campaign to be launched with the locals – the two others, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte, are short journeys given the alternatives in a country of Brazil’s size. The distance to both cities from England’s camp on the Sao Conrado beach is the same as that from Wembley Stadium to St James’ Park in Newcastle.
“It’s a tough group there’s no doubt about it,” Hodgson said. Although his fears about travelling around Brazil had been evened out by the two short hops against one long journey. “To be frank there weren’t many scenarios where you would have been jumping for joy,” he said. “There were a lot more scenarios where you were thinking, ‘This will be very tough for us’.
“To get one that is a bit tough doesn’t surprise me at all. There is a lot of travelling to be done in most of the groups. Our great advantage being based in Rio is that we only have the one long trip and then the other two trips to Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte are relatively short trips in the same neck of the woods.”
As ever with Hodgson, there is the touch of the archetypal Englishman, sunglasses, shorts and pale legs girded against the tropical sun. “It’ll be a chance to see the north of Brazil,” he said, searching for the positives aspects about a trip to Manaus. “I have never been to the Amazon.”
For the TV companies there is the horror of England’s 2am kick-off against Italy in the first game. Is that negotiable given the pre-eminence of television? Certainly it would seem that just about everything else is up for changing and rescheduling when it comes to Fifa and the modern World Cup.
What will not change is the nature of the opponents whom Sir Geoff Hurst, among others, drew out for England in Salvador. In the past, the team and the nation has clung on to small mercies. At least this time there will be no hiding behind all that and England will be required to hit the ground running in the rain forest stadium.
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA
Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea