With yesterday’s draw having brought the 2014 World Cup into sharp focus, the attention of England’s players, media and fans will now be very much on Brazil until the tournament is over. But once the immediate plotting of who, where and when is done, the manager might just be thinking further into the future.
While Roy Hodgson will go to South America intent on doing everything he can to pull off a historic triumph, no one seriously expected England to be celebrating victory come 13 July even before yesterday’s daunting draw. The Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, gestured as much yesterday.
Of course, given much luck with injuries and referees, and the key players all finding form at the right time, success is possible, as it is for a dozen teams. Greece’s victory in the 2004 European Championship underlined that.
However, history and form suggests that the 20th World Cup will be won by a South American team, probably Brazil or Argentina, with Uruguay as the leading outsiders. If a European team is to win it then Spain and Germany are the most likely to do so, with Italy and the Netherlands also in contention.
Two years down the line, however, France are hosting a European Championship which the FA targeted several years ago. It is why Hodgson was given a contract to July 2016. Qualification for Brazil was vital in terms of revenue, prestige and tournament experience – for staff and players.
It also gave Hodgson breathing space. Had England failed to make it, the FA was unlikely to have withstood the media’s clamour for change. It was, however, a means to an end, and that end is Paris, not Rio de Janeiro.
England have a realistic chance at Euro 2016 for a variety of reasons. Obviously one of them is that Argentina and Brazil, who respectively knocked England out of the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, will not be present. That just leaves Germany, Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal etc to deal with.
Historically tournaments are won by nations with geographical familiarity to the hosts. The exceptions come when the host teams are weak (eg the World Cups of 2002 and 2010, when Brazil and Spain won in Japan and South Africa respectively; and Euro 2012 when Spain won in Ukraine).
Greece is a long way from Portugal, but the countries have climactic and cultural similarities. England will similarly feel at home in France. Admittedly their main rivals will too, given France’s position at the heart of western Europe, but English players tend to be more insular than most so familiarity is significant. They will also be backed by huge travelling support.
Most important of all, the FA believes that in 2016 England will have the players. At the heart of the current squad is a void between the last remnants of the “golden generation” and the young tyros.
By June 2016 there will be a core of players in the 26 to 29 age group that tends to win tournaments: Kyle Walker, Kieran Gibbs, Tom Cleverley, Daniel Sturridge (all 26), Theo Walcott (27), Adam Lallana (28) and Joe Hart (29).
In addition, Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck and Andros Townsend will be a year or two younger, Wayne Rooney, James Milner, Gary Cahill and Leighton Baines just into their 30s. Given these players will have a couple more years’ international and Champions League experience that is the core of a decent side. There may still be a place for the likes of Steven Gerrard, who will be 36 a fortnight before Euro 2016 starts, possibly in central defence unless Phil Jones or Chris Smalling have trained on, and there will certainly be a spot for a 22-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The FA has long hoped these players would be supplemented by graduates from the team that won the European Under-17 Championship in 2010, defeating Spain in the final. Trevor Brooking, the FA’s Director of Football Development, said at the time that this was the first group of English youth players he had seen in which every player was comfortable on the ball. They were, he added, “the best passing group we’ve had. You could put them in any shirt and you wouldn’t know which European country they were from”.
Those players were mostly aged 17 – the precocious Nathaniel Chalobah was 15 – so they will be in their early 20s in 2016. It was assumed back in 2010 that two or three would be England regulars by 2016, but even then Brooking recognised the boys’ next big challenge was getting regular, top-flight first-team action.
So it has proved. To date only Everton’s Ross Barkley and West Bromwich Albion’s Saido Berahino of the 18-man squad have made any kind of impact in the Premier League. Though Barkley has been capped by England this season, his club place is under threat from Barcelona’s Gerard Deulofeu; while Berahino, though prolific for the Under-21s, has yet to nail down a regular starting position for Albion.
The rest have made slow progress. Connor Wickham secured an £8m move to Sunderland in 2011 but, after one Premier League goal and four managers, is on loan at Sheffield Wednesday. Eight other players are out on loan, six in the Championship (including the once-heralded Josh McEachran), two in League One.
Three players are at Championship teams on a permanent basis; three are at top-flight clubs but have never played a first-team game for them; and one now plays in the Northern Premier League. There is time yet for the likes of Chalobah, 19 next week, Jack Butland and Andre Wisdom to make the step up from the Under-21s by 2016, but their odds are lengthening.
This group’s disappearance is at least offset by the emergence of Southampton’s Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse, and the taming of Ravel Morrison by West Ham.
Hodgson will take one or two players to Brazil for the experience, much as Rio Ferdinand went to France ’98. Four years later he was one of the 2002 World Cup’s best defenders.
Hodgson will hope his class of 2014 look and learn as readily as Ferdinand did because England’s best hopes lie in the short hop across the Channel in two years’ time, rather than on the other side of the South Atlantic next summer.