Where did all that euphoria go? Nights like this invest Greg Dyke’s commission into the structural ills of English football with fresh impetus. And it’s Germany up next. Mein Gott. Perhaps fate was doing us an early favour, heaping a dose of reality on over-active imaginations. That said, you wonder what the answer is when players of the calibre of Jack Wilshere give the ball away with such frequency he might have been dressed in red.
England have met Chile only five times and Nat Lofthouse was the last to score against them in 1953, not that we needed statistics to help inform our understanding of what to expect. Chile, a team of footballing itinerants, conform to the south American model of quick feet and lumpy tackles. The visit to London was effectively a bonus ball following their qualification for the World Cup. This generation of Chilean players, the first since 1998 to make the journey, got to tick the ‘played at Wembley’ box and England were afforded a sharp look at Latin opposition. Useful if the teams are grouped together when the World Cup draw is made in Brazilian city of Salvador next month.
The England landscape had shifted significantly since the torpor of Ukraine. Victories against Montenegro and Poland and the consequent Andros Townsend effect had produced a positive mood swing. Hodgson has enjoyed the easiest month of his managerial career and stopped by unprompted to pass the time of day with reporters on the first day of England training in Hertfordshire this week, even giving them an exclusive medical bulletin on absentee captain Steven Gerrard and right-back Kyle Walker.
Availability issues and the shortage of games before the World Cup squad is announced combined to give England a quasi-experimental look, which went down well in distant quarters. The debut of Burnley-born Jay Rodriguez, or Jay-Rod to his mates, merited a whole page in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph. The appearance of Rodriguez and his Southampton team-mate Adam Lallana suitably Latinised the England team for the visit of opponents thought to represent a radically alien philosophy, despite the presence of players from Nottingham Forest, Wigan and Cardiff in the Chile team.
That the myth of the exotic foreigner lingers is a fair commentary on the myopic condition that still hinders English thinking. Mind you, ignorance is not exclusively ours. The Chilean propaganda machine was all over the place. England’s footballers were both a pampered, privileged class, softened by fame and fortune, and a great footballing nation with a noble tradition, while Chile’s football proletariat emerged from stereotypical impoverished roots, driven to succeed by want and privation. And all this out of one reported mouth, that of Alexis Sanchez, who must have been dizzy with the doubling back he was forced to do to clarify his position.
A glance down the England squad list reveals few sons of the English middle class. The memory of growing up poorish in Croxteth or Huyton, the fate of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard respectively, is unlikely to be erased by the good life experience, no matter how many cars in the garage. The important thing for England was not so much to familiarise themselves with some freakish Latin system, and the inherent supremacy assumed therein, but to understand that the ball and the pitch is the same for both sides. Command those and the world is yours. If only.
On a freezing night in north London, Wembley had to rely on the sound system for atmosphere. A great chunk of the upper tier, lately colonised by Poles, was empty. That is not to say Chile were not well represented in the stands. And eight minutes in there was tumult. After an opening spell of often chaotic defence Chile scored with their first foray across the half-way line, Alexis Sanchez stooping to head home.
There was nothing mesmeric about the attack, nothing to learn save for the importance of concentrating early in games. After a promising start England were suckered by a schoolboy ambush, notwithstanding the high quality of the finish. At least the setback gave the game a visceral edge it might have been lacking. If Hodgson wanted to judge the new boys in a setting that meant something, here was significance rippling the back of the England net.
The response was casual. Wilshere, arguably England’s most technically gifted midfielder, was guilty of the most heinous crime, giving the ball away in a series of unforced errors. Claudio Bravo was busy enough in the opposition goal, theatrically so at times, but there was little systematic about the openings created. In this sea of sloppy passing Rodriguez in particular was lost. Lallana less so, and might have levelled shortly before the interval after a decisive break from always effervescent Wayne Rooney.
Hodgson must have been tempted to withdraw Rodriguez at half time. He survived 13 minutes of the second period without erasing the uncomfortable comparison with fellow Lancastrian Simon Kerrigan, who endured a similarly harrowing international debut with the England cricket team in the final Ashes Test at the Oval. Hodgson said that a negative display would necessarily count against the overwhelmed. The way of the world therefore would appear to have done for Rodriguez.
The departure of Rodriguez saw the introduction of Townsend and with him a sense of purpose returned at last. Where there is pace there is hope. Chile were suddenly less sure of themselves in defence and the appearance of Jermaine Defoe for James Milner raised the temperature further.
This was ultimately a lesson in fundamentals. Chile are not world beaters. They are organised, each knows his role and in Sanchez, known to the world via the Barcelona prism, and Matias Fernandez, the commander of the Fiorentina midfield, Chile have two players who would grace any side.
England have their own principals. Rooney and Townsend both shone when coupled late in the game, but the whole lacked cohesion and mistakes were punished, as they will be in Brazil by better teams than this.