Do you remember where you were on June 25, 2006? Do you have any idea of its significance? No? I don’t blame you. Here’s an England World Cup history refresher…
It was hot in the German city of Stuttgart – the mercury tipping 33 Celsius. David Beckham was standing over a free-kick around 35 yards from goal, pushed up close to the shade of the left-hand touchline.
Golden Balls swung in a right-footed delivery. It missed every single one of the huddle of English forwards and Ecuadorian defenders and settled in the back of the net. Subsequently, it was the only goal of the game. England World Cup campaign hopes had progressed through to the quarter-finals. And you know what? That was the last time a Three Lions side won a knockout match at a major international final.
Since then, England’s form every other summer has dropped suddenly, dramatically and very, very inelegantly. The Greg Louganis of international football teams, they have headbutted the diving board and spiralled towards a thoroughly uncomfortable landing.
Failure to qualify for Euro 2008 preceded that spectacular combustion against Germany in South Africa.
Euro 2012 was a write-off after the group stage, and the less said about the last World Cup the better. And then there was that evening against Iceland two years ago… Joe Hart’s jelly wrists and one of the nation’s most ignominious defeats; which, for a country that specialises in ignominy, is a mighty impressive achievement.
So what can the current England World Cup crop learn as they progress through Russia? Let’s try to use history as a force for good, and offer a few suggestions:
Suggestions for the 2018 England World Cup Team
1 – DON’T GET CABIN FEVER
The stories of life inside the England World Cup camp during the 2010 disaster in South Africa are well known. Fabio Capello’s ruthless Rustenburg detention centre made the Three Lions isolated from the outside world. The absolute mind-bending boredom that created genuinely had an effect on the players’ performances. If all your strikers can do to unwind is watch Wayne Rooney’s wedding DVD from start to finish, how can you expect them to relax?
There have already been plenty of indications that Gareth Southgate’s approach is much more gentle; the manager is happy for families to come and go from the team hotel and he has spoken about avoiding the “bubble” scenario that afflicted the side eight years ago. And that can only bode well. The issue now will be how easy it is for the players to feel ‘at home’ in an atmosphere of extreme security. Undercover guards will protect wives, girlfriends and children of the players in Russia (Danny Rose has already asked his family not to travel because of the host country’s record when it comes to racism).
2 – PRACTISE YOUR PENALTIES
Okay, it’s an obvious shout. England are rubbish at penalty shootouts… you know it, the opposition knows it, Jordan Pickford knows it. But at major competitions like the World Cup, there’s always a chance that your tournament life is going to depend on a handful of kicks from 12 yards.. and England have lost six of seven down the years (most recently against Italy in Euro 2012). So it’s worth a moment’s preparation.
There is a school of thought that such scenarios are inimitable, that doing 20 minutes of spot-kick work after training has no practical application in a game situation. Surely, though, and especially for a country tied to penalty failure by history’s umbilical cord, there’s no harm in trying. Southgate agrees. England have been practising the whole ritual – walking from halfway, gathering the ball from the referee, picking a spot and following through. Pickford says doing so is “not looking too far ahead”. But instead making sure the team is “prepared for how we’d want to go about it”. It’s a refreshing outlook.
3 – THANK FIFA FOR VAR
While FIFA can be justifiably implicated in most of football’s ills, It seems a little disingenuous to blame the governing body for the England World Cup 2010 elimination at the hands of a rampant Germany. Still, there remains the slightest hint of “what if” about the last-16 encounter in South Africa, revolving around Frank Lampard’s goal-that-never-was. This time around, though, things are different. Video technology is well established in the international arena and will be used officiously in Russia if reports are to be believed. Good for disputed goals, bad for players who try to get away with the dark arts off the ball.
4 – DON’T GIVE YOURSELVES TOO MUCH TO DO
It’s a fairly obvious statement – winning your opening match gives you a greater chance of progression. But England’s recent slumps have come largely after starting tournaments with a stutter. Since 2006, when Paraguay were beaten in a World Cup opener, the Three Lions’ major tournaments have begun with a draw against the USA, a draw against France, defeat by Italy and a draw with Russia. No oomph with which to generate self-belief, no spark to please the media, no motivation for supporters. The stats say that around 10 per cent of countries who lose their opening match at World Cups fail to reach the knockout phase.
5 – DON’T TAKE IT TOO SERIOUSLY
Two years ago, Joe Hart was asked about a darts tournament he’d organised for the team at their hotel. “I’m not here to talk about the darts,” he said. Around the same time, Gareth Bale sat down with the embedded Welsh media and said:
“Right boys, do you want to know the table tennis results?” The attitude towards such trivial goings-on illustrated the mindset within the respective camps. England’s faux focus and Wales’s boyish excitement. Hart, of course, conceded a series of sloppy goals as the English limped home after the round of 16. Wales went all the way to the semi-finals. Tactics and strategy can be locked up in a metal box and the key thrown into the Moskva, and that’s fine.
But there’s no need to play hush-hush when it comes to parts of tournament life which show you to be human. This year, the England World Cup team appear to have addressed this – a Superbowl-style media session this week saw the entire squad available for an hour to the national media, and topics ranged from the downright serious (the treatment of Raheem Sterling) to the downright silly (Fabian Delph being presented with a personalised box of Yorkshire Tea). And that’s how it should be… it’s only football after all.
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Sam Morshead is a British sports journalist.
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Cover Image: Soccer Football – International Friendly – England vs Nigeria – Wembley Stadium, London, Britain – June 2, 2018 England players during a minute’s applause in memory of Ray Wilkins and Ray Wilson before the match Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine