Sports correspondent Kate Battersby assesses our chances in Brazil. Of course, we can't win it. The team is too young. Or can enthusiasm carry them further than we hope? But then again, nah...
It’s a complicated business, weighing up England’s World Cup prospects. A few months ago the raging debate was not about whether England can win the 2014 World Cup – because of course they can’t – but merely whether the team would manage to graduate through their three group matches to the knockout stages.
Now the general mood seems to be brighter. Naturally this is not because the English have suddenly become a nation of true believers about lifting the trophy.
Disregard Roy Hodgson’s butch assertions on the day he unveiled his initial 23-man squad that England can “of course” triumph. It’s nonsense. All the same, his announcement of a youthful line-up has prompted a strange optimism.
Roy Hodgson’s youngsters: the green squad
The Hodgson Generation of Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw, Raheem Sterling and co are deemed so green that Brazil 2014 can only be about banking experience in order to fund unspecified glory days ahead.
Except now that all expectations have been set aside, it has allowed the perfect excuse to discuss the possibility of achieving more than is anticipated.
Hence we find ourselves back at the beginning. Hoping for more than may be reasonable, while safe in the concrete knowledge that we cannot possibly win the thing. (And yes, I am abandoning theoretical correctness to speak of “we” and “us”. Deal with it!)
Here’s Sir Geoff Hurst (*genuflects*), perfectly encapsulating our incurable play-it-down-but-you-never-know brand of national insanity:
“Brazil may be a World Cup too soon for some youngsters, but others will force their way into contention just as Alan Ball did in 1966,” says the great one, referring to the fact that Ball was 21 at the start of the tournament which became this nation’s footballing pinnacle.
“He was the youngest player in our squad yet was man of the match in the World Cup final.”
Already one newspaper has described 20-year-old Ross Barkley as a freakishly talented hybrid, possessing at his best the dynamism of Wayne Rooney, the burst of pace of a young Michael Owen, a left foot like Robbie Fowler, the right of Steven Gerrard and the close control of Steve McManaman. No pressure then.
“Six months ago, I’d have said we didn’t even stand a chance of making it through the group stage,” says Gary Lineker, “whereas now we have a lot of young players coming through who are technically really good and can do things as well as some of the greatest players in the world.
“Fortunately, too, there’s not too much expectation of the England team, so really they have nothing to lose and everything to play for.
“We’re a transitional side and if we do make it to the quarter-final stage, we’ll be punching above our weight. It could be pretty exciting.”
Or not. Quarter-finals? “Punching above our weight”? You’re not joking.
It is all well and good that Hodgson has cottoned on to selecting young players in order to field them on the pitch (viz: Glenn Hoddle taking 17-year-old Michael Owen and then announcing he was too young to play, before Owen’s efforts make him Sports Personality of the Year).
Hodgson has also recruited Steve Peters, whose brand of sports psychology has done wonders for the Olympic cycling squad, Liverpool FC and Ronnie O’Sullivan among others (viz: Hoddle again, sending players to see faith healer Eileen Drewery, whether they wanted to or not).
Uncle Roy’s modern methodology belies his 66 years. But there still lurks the familiar nightmare that England might do weirdly well in their opening match against Italy, prompting demented headlines of the “we can win it” variety, only to duff it up with a draw against group minnows Costa Rica, leaving a wildly good result required against Uruguay.
Since 1966, the fact is that England have been little more than decent second-raters, occasionally playing well but never with consistent authority (remember the alleged “Golden Generation” of 2010?).
One of Hodgson’s bigger tests may come if Wayne Rooney – now considered middle-aged at 28 – produces indifferent form. As others have observed, Rooney is still valuable, but no longer talismanic. Would Hodgson have the chutzpah to drop him, and invest in one of those younger strikers?
Ah well. At least we can rely on having a God-awful World Cup song, with a “reboot” (see what they did there?) of Take That’s Greatest Day.
The Guardian’s Barney Ronay perfectly captured its profound poverty thus: “Like all the best England songs, it seems to be about glorious and impotent decay, shot through with the kind of plastic wistfulness at which Gary Barlow is a master – and he is here in the video looking sad and inspirational and bereaved, like a divorced dad at the swings in the rain in an uplifting TV advert for online personal banking.”
If only despair were all we have to fear. But at the World Cup, the words of John Cleese in Clockwise echo loud in the nation’s psyche: “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”