World Cup 2014: Few flags and no jingoism – England has stopped expecting
Lack of investment in grass-roots football means supporters will watch without too much hope
During the 2002 World Cup the daughter of a journalist following the England team came out to join the media pack in Japan. Sven Goran Eriksson’s men had advanced to the second stage and were about to play Denmark. With the travelling fans doing a conga in rainy Niigata, England won 3-0 to secure a quarter-final berth, but our visitor was unimpressed. “It was,” she said, “more fun following the World Cup in England.” This despite a time- difference that meant most matches were being watched over breakfast.
Her observation chimed with a regular comment made by players at tournaments. Being themselves trapped inside the bubble that envelops the national team when on manoeuvres, it was somewhat wistfully they would report: “Every time we ring home our families are saying it’s gone mad back there.”
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Would a dreary draw be so bad?
Not this time. The torrent of emailed PR guff tangentially linked to the tournament may suggest otherwise, but despite the best efforts of the bookies, tabloids and publicans much of England has so far been resistant to World Cup fever. There are few flags fluttering from cars and barely an overpriced shirt to be seen. Much of what advance participation there is has been celebrating the advent of the competition rather than just England’s involvement.
Why is this? There is no David Beckham to lure in the casual follower and no key player’s metatarsal injury to obsess over, but most of all England does not expect. Not this time. Not any more.
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The growing awareness of foreign teams and players, due to the globalisation of the Premier League and growth of the Champions League, is a factor. There is now more interest in and connection with the tournament as a whole. Liverpool fans will have a soft spot for Uruguay, Manchester City’s for Argentina, Crystal Palace’s for Australia.
With this exposure has come a reassessment of the England team’s status in the world, much to the chagrin of the bookies, who can no longer rely on patriotic punters heavily backing England at unrealistic odds.
The draw for the 2010 World Cup was greeted by The Sun listing, on its front page, the teams in Group C (England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks) to spell the word EASY. This time Greg Dyke’s throat-cutting gesture caught a very different mood. With the Golden Generation either tarnished or pensioned off, and manager Roy Hodgson a stranger to bombast, England go in hope, but with only modest ambition.
There are fresh legs and fresh faces in Hodgson’s squad with the adventurous outlook of Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling understandably fuelling what anticipation there is, but they are very raw. Of the 23 only Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard have even previously reached the World Cup’s last eight. Tonight’s opponents will have a trio of World Cup winners in Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Gianluigi Buffon and, for good measure, Cesare Prandelli could start with as many as nine who played in the Euro 2012 final.
Nor are the Italians short of young talent. Jordan Henderson, captain of England’s Under-21s in last summer’s European Championship, will recall with embarrassment how Marco Verratti and Lorenzo Insigne gave England the runaround in Tel Aviv en route to reaching the final. Henderson, incidentally, is the only member of Stuart Pearce’s squad to be in Brazil, which rather underlines that he, Barkley and Sterling are the exceptions, not the rule, when it comes to England’s youth development.
Should Pirlo, De Rossi and Mario Balotelli be devoured by the three lions in the jungle tonight there will, of course, be an instant ramping up of jingoism with St George’s cross flags sprouting overnight like mushrooms. Nevertheless, the tub-thumping will be tempered by the painful awareness that England have been this way before, and it usually ends badly.
The years of continuing failure have led to a mood change. There is anger at grass-roots level at the poverty of investment made by an obscenely wealthy game, and recognition within the professional ranks that something needs to change if England are to go to future World Cups with a genuine chance.
Recognising the problems is only the first step. Finding solutions is much harder. When it comes to grass roots the Football Foundation has estimated that 2,000 3G artificial surfaces are required. Last week the body announced the first tranche of grants since it was renamed the Premier League & The FA Facilities Fund (in response to those organisations wanting more publicity for investment). Five new full-size 3G pitches are to be built. Only 1,995 to go, then.
In the circumstances the fact that the number of over-16s playing football once a week has actually increased by 88,000 to 1.96 million in the past six months, according to this week’s Sport England figures, appears surprising – but many are playing five-a-side. The reality is the grass-roots game could not cope with the surge in the unlikely event of England winning in Brazil.
Meanwhile, in the professional game, Dyke’s half-baked scheme to introduce Premier League B teams into the pyramid has been kicked into touch by the Football League.
Unless England reach the last four there will be another bout of hand-wringing when they go out, an agreement that “something must be done”, but none of the vested interests volunteering to concede their own territory. Should England do unexpectedly well the cry will be: “Why fix it, it’s not broken?”
But it is, and the public knows it. Which is why we will be gathering round the television tonight hoping for, but not expecting, a good performance and result. And – except where the booze is talking – not reading too much into it if those wishes are fulfilled.
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