Kevin Garside: Let's play like England, with nothing to fear but fear itself
Until recently the the country was oppressed by inferiority; not now
An entreaty you thought might never be heard again: "Come on, let's play like England." The appeal came from a 14-year-old at training for his village football team in north Bucks the night after England beat Brazil. This generation knew little of Britain's historic role in spreading the football gospel across the globe, had no idea it was an outreach group of Scottish railwaymen that settled the game in Brazil at the back end of the 19th century. In the experience of Great Horwood Under-14s the five-time world champions are the great pioneers, the standard-bearers.
The most pleasing aspect of Wednesday's victory was not the result but the debunking of the myth that English footballers are somehow technically deficient, that when it comes to the finer points of the game we cannot compete. Along wanders Jack Wilshere into Neymar's world and plays him off the park. The "samba rhythm" was set by a kid from Hitchin. And, lo, it also turns out that Theo Walcott is not bad either and that England's creative range extends beyond the capable feet of Wayne Rooney. No wonder Neymar was flummoxed.
There was no attempt before the game to bracket Wilshere among the best in the world. Neymar was introduced by his manager and by a previous incumbent, Ronaldinho, as the third point of a gilded triangle involving Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The claim was swallowed uncritically, when in truth it was nothing more than the flip side of the cliché that classifies English footballers as crude practitioners overdependent on effort and passion, incapable of matching the tricksters of Copacabana Beach. Brazil are thus a goal to the good in every game, given the deference accorded them. But under pressure the mystique falls away. The men in yellow turned out to be human after all.
Under Roy Hodgson this England team is quietly turning convention on its head, showing the world that the mother country is host to talent that, when properly organised and reinforced by belief, can be as good as any.
Steven Gerrard and Rooney, Leighton Baines and Walcott have not acquired an enhanced skill set overnight, they are technically no better than they were two, three, four years ago, but they have harnessed the trick of confidence. Wilshere may well be the catalyst. But that is not important. What is necessary is that the group buy in to the idea that they are good enough, and that they play without fear.
That fear is the greatest barrier to success was a view expressed by Robert Key in evaluating England's victory in the opening T20 cricket international against New Zealand. Having had mixed results in the two warm-up games, England clobbered a record total when it mattered, smashing a competitive Black Caps team by 40 runs, a monster margin in this form of the game. Key went straight to the point when he observed that England were free of constraints, with no debilitating doubt. It was a team that knew what it was doing and believed in itself. This does not guarantee a win, but it does ensure the opposition are not given freebies.
This truth applies across all sports. Once a team begin to believe, based on the realisation that they can compete, anything is possible. Witness the humbling of the All Blacks at Twickenham in England's final engagement of the autumn rugby internationals. New Zealand, the world champions, were advancing on a record run of unbeaten games, but they were not quite the invincible XV of myth when they were put under pressure by an opposition who refused to recognise their superiority. This does not mean England will always win, only that New Zealand will not be allowed to put points on the board by reputation alone.
Until recently the English were oppressed by inferiority, by the idea that we were not quite good enough to compete with the best. So in football we were not in the same league as Spain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Brazil and Argentina. In rugby, England lifted the World Cup in 2003 but really it was the southern hemisphere powers, or even the French, that set the height of the bar. For the best part of two decades England's cricketers lay down at the feet of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and the Waugh twins. Not now.
England host Australia as favourites in this summer's Ashes. Our rugby players, having finally worked out a way past the All Blacks by a record margin, are breathing fire again and our footballers have beaten Brazil at their own game. Across the three staples that form the backbone of sport in this country the cry goes out: "Come on, let's play like England."
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