World Cup 2014: Opening shot - England's odyssey begins with a tough first game against Italy. But has history always been that unkind?

 

History lessons on England at the World Cup tell us that they rarely start well, and if they do, as in 1982 against France, then the standard is almost never maintained.

Even in 1966 there were boos at the final whistle of the opening game, a turgid goalless draw against a defensive-minded Uruguay. A leading sportswriter who asked two England supporters what they thought of that game and the host country's chances of winning the trophy received an identical reply to each question: "Rubbish".

At least the host nation famously improved that year on a disappointing beginning, which has by no means always been the case. Many times since, that eagerly awaited first game has followed the same pattern: huge expectation, a hot day, a bright opening flourish and early goal, then a struggle as fatigue kicks in.

Since 2010 there has been such a dampening of optimism that many are now making a positive of the negatives and concluding that an Italian starter at next summer's banquet may not be such a bad thing after all. Why build up hopes ahead of a first-ever game against Costa Rica, the argument goes, and suffer as Bryan Ruiz scores an equaliser in a 1-1 draw?

A more realistic view would be that the combination of venue and opposition could not have been a great deal worse.

Roy Hodgson offered an unnecessary hostage to fortune early last week, as well as upsetting the local mayor, when he expressed fears about having to play in the Amazon jungle (shades of the less-than-diplomatic Sir Alf Ramsey unwisely annoying the Mexican media before the 1970 tournament). Now the England manager has been forced to make light of his own argument by trying to suggest that Italy will face the same problems in the intense humidity as England.

In the confusion and profusion of interviews on Friday night, Hodgson even referred to them as "a northern European team". In fact, the Italians are far more used to heat and, critically, have developed a style that suits it, based on technique and mastery of possession allied to traditional defensive soundness.

They are now one of the few countries in the world with a better than 50 per cent record against England, despite winning none of the first eight meetings before 1973. The Azzurri lost an early-season friendly 2-1 to Hodgson's equally experimental team last August, but can legitimately point to the game between the sides at Euro 2012 as an example of what England must expect to face in Manaus.

Italy had 67 per cent of the ball in the comparative cool of a Kiev night and answered those who claim that possession alone means nothing by registering an extraordinary 31 attempts on goal (to England's eight). Had Steven Gerrard or Wayne Rooney nicked a winner at any stage of the 120 minutes before penalties brought the just outcome, they would have had to celebrate not by ripping off a shirt but by donning a highwayman's mask.

Following that tournament there was much debate as usual about where England might improve, and one of the conclusions was that keeping the ball for longer would be a start. Tiki-taka from Tottenham to Torquay having proved difficult to implement, discussion has already moved on, and recently there have been two notable contributions from – if they will excuse the expression – the horses' mouths.

Hodgson has said that England are now better (more specifically, quicker) on the counterattack because of Under-21 graduates Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck and the abundance of pacy wingers such as Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Andros Townsend and Aaron Lennon, plus others coming through in Raheem Sterling, Wilfried Zaha and Nathan Redmond.

Meanwhile, Gary Neville offered some interesting observations in a newspaper column about how English teams should play. Neville may run into the occasional conflict between serving his media masters and coaching the England team, but it can be assumed that he preaches what he practises and urges Hodgson to follow suit.

His theory was that in trying to copy Continental methods, English clubs (and by implication the national team) have lost a British identity. He defined that as "speed of play, tempo of passing, sprinting to the ball, getting out of the box quickly to play offside".

He praised the "pressing" style that is the new buzzword, and the sheer hard work of the team of the moment, Bayern Munich, who will provide a core of Germany's squad in Brazil.

Meanwhile, the Germany coach, Joachim Löw, has insisted on his side passing the ball faster, aiming for as little as one second per player in possession before moving it on. Germany have been drawn to play all their three group games in Brazil's north-east, with temperatures of around 30C and Löw admits they will have to adapt.

So must England if they are not to become exhausted by a high tempo when they have the ball and too much chasing when the opposition do. The technicians of Uruguay and even Costa Rica will be more familiar than Hodgson's team with the kind of conditions encountered in Brazil and also have a style better adapted to them; the Uruguayans are regular visitors and Costa Rica have played there six times in the past decade to England's one.

As Fabio Capello has observed – but was unable to drill into England's players during his period in charge of them – "the ball does not sweat". The players will in Manaus and elsewhere next summer, and this time one of those scrambled 1-1 draws to open England's campaign would have to be regarded as a bonus rather than the traditional anticlimax.

How England have started the finals since 1966…

1970: England 1 Romania 0 (Guadalajara)

Bobby Moore returned from house arrest after being accused of jewellery theft and played superbly for the holders, his West Ham team-mate Geoff Hurst scoring the only goal.

P4 W2 D0 L2 F4 A4

1986: England 0 Portugal 1 (Monterrey)

A goal by Carlos Manuel after Kenny Sansom's mistake meant England lost their opening game at a World Cup for what is still only the second time (the first being in 1962, to Hungary).

P5 W2 D1 L2 F7 A4

1982: England 3 France 1 (Bilbao)

On a scorchingly hot day Bryan Robson scored after 27 seconds. France equalised but Robson and Paul Mariner rounded off England's best performance of the tournament.

P5 W3 D2 L0 F6 A1

1990: England 1 Republic of Ireland 1 (Cagliari)

After an early goal by Gary Lineker, England allowed Ireland back into the game in a match so poor that one tabloid newspaper demanded of Bobby Robson's team: "Bring them home!"

P7 W3 D3 L1 F8 A6

1998: England 2 Tunisia 0 (Marseilles)

Leaving out Paul Gascoigne from his squad and an equally distraught David Beckham from the first game, Glenn Hoddle was rewarded with a comfortable win, Paul Scholes adding a last-minute goal to one earlier from Alan Shearer.

P4 W2 D1 L1 F7 A4

2002: England 1 Sweden 1 (Saitama)

It was "first half good, second half not so good" for Eriksson against his home country. Sol Campbell headed England in front but Niclas Alexandersson deservedly equalised after a poor clearance by Danny Mills.

P5 W2 D2 L1 F6 A3

2006: England 1 Paraguay 0 (Frankfurt)

An early free-kick from David Beckham produced an own goal and Paraguay's goalkeeper was injured soon after, but with Wayne Rooney missing and Michael Owen below par, England later wilted in the 30C heat. P5 W3 D2 L0 F6 A2

2010: England 1 United States 1 (Rustenburg)

It all started so well, with Steven Gerrard opening the scoring after only four minutes. But any thoughts of a stroll were ended when Robert Green allowed a shot by Clint Dempsey through his legs before half-time.

P4 W1 D2 L1 F3 A5

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