For many, it will be a late night tonight, as fans tune in to watch England begin their World Cup campaign in Brazil against one of the tournament’s perennial favourites, Italy.
There is a refreshing lack of hysteria surrounding England’s participation. Before each of the past three World Cup competitions hopes were high, only to be dashed by mediocre performances. The “golden generation” of David Beckham, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen et al should have been a match for the world; instead, they were snuffed out like a match in the wind.
Few players in the current England squad spend as much time on the pages of celebrity magazines as their renowned predecessors. Their egos, by footballing standards, appear to be in check. The chances of anyone repeating John Terry’s public criticism of his manager during the 2010 finals look slim.
With expectation and ego duly restrained, the question remains whether England can resist the third feature that has beset their recent performances in the global tournament, especially in the early stages: a reversion to the long-ball stereotype.
Indeed, it has been an oddity that, under purportedly classy, continental management, and with considerable emphasis on the passing ability of their teams, England began the past three World Cups with, respectively, Emile Heskey, Peter Crouch and Heskey again, as archetypal target men. They played direct football and looked utterly unconvincing.
The signs this time are positive. Manager Roy Hodgson – that most English of Englishmen – has built a squad around players like Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Ross Barkley who are young, fast and exciting. Hodgson – and all of us – will hope that they can resist the long-ball instinct and keep in mind the last England team to make an impression on the world stage: that led by Hodgson’s great friend, the late Sir Bobby Robson, in 1990 in Italy. Low expectations cannot stop us having high hopes.