Sportsthoughts (171) – Reflections on the World Cup as England bow out

So now it’s 56 years of hurt (for the men’s team that is). That means in the 2026 World Cup it will be 30 years since Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds first sang, thirty years of hurt. Thirty years since thirty years! That’s a lot of hurt – unless, of course, we win the Euros in 2024. I’m not counting on it.

But did it really hurt? For me, not really. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s the lowering of expectations after all the near misses – or maybe it’s because England were good in this World Cup. They were brilliant against Iran, mediocre against the USA, decent with flashes of excellence against Wales and pretty impressive against Senegal, who were, after all, the African champions. We went into the France game thinking we had a chance, and played our part in an evenly-matched game, decided by France’s more clinical finishing and that penalty miss…

Fortune’s always hiding, as we like to sing at West Ham.

England have played in 16 World Cups from 1950, their first. They rather snootily refused to participate before that. They have reached 7 quarter finals including this one, two semi finals and, of course, won in 1966, since when the hurt clock has been ticking. Some good teams have been knocked out in the quarters before, notably the 1970 team and arguably the 2006 golden generation. They have also failed to qualify on three occasions: for the 1974, 78 and 94 tournaments. So going out to France in the quarter finals on Saturday was a kind of average achievement. But it felt better than that.

Why is that? I think it’s a mixture of things: goodwill, potential and the strange circumstances of this tournament.

First, the goodwill. The 2021 Euros, badly though they ended in the final – especially the behaviour of some fans – generated a good feeling about this England squad. A young, diverse, united team, not beholden to the old cynicism and rivalries. Led by an enlightened and articulate manager in Gareth Southgate. That all carried on into this competition.

Second the quality and potential of the team itself. It has weaknesses, of course, but there are so many exciting players, with more to give. Saka, Foden, Bellingham, Rice, Rashford to the fore. A steady defence, if a little vulnerable in the centre. A concern about what happens when Harry Kane isn’t fit. But strong foundations. I think we can be optimistic about the future.

Then there is this tournament. The circumstances in which Qatar won the bid. The human rights issues, the treatment of workers. It’s not as if World Cups haven’t been staged in reprehensible countries before, but with social media what it is today, this competition had a downbeat feel before it started. And for us in the northern hemisphere, it’s taking place in winter, and has disrupted our domestic leagues. It’s hard to be sure, but I think it has made us feel more detached from events on the field. Adults that is – the kids are as passionate as ever.

Put all this together, and it didn’t feel as bad when England were knocked out as it has in the past. And when you think about all the other top teams who have been eliminated early – Brazil especially, but also Belgium, Germany, Spain and Portugal – we are not alone. Early, of course, is relative to expectations. I think the Brazilians must be suffering most. The World Cup was theirs for the taking. There was hubris in the team selection for the quarter final against Croatia – essentially five attackers and just one defensively-minded midfield player in the front six of the nominal 4-3-3. It was more of a 4-1-1-4. Naturally the Croatians, an experienced and talented team, who got to the final last time, controlled midfield for most of the game. And they know how to take penalties.

So what now? France are probably the best team left, but I have a feeling that Messi might drag Argentina past Croatia in Tuesday’s semi-final and then light up the final. It’s his last chance. It would be a great story. But just as likely, it will be Mbappe and Griezmann – the best player in the England-France game by a mile – stealing the show. Unless of course, Morocco do what Greece did in the 2004 Euros.

It couldn’t happen, could it?

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
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5 Responses to Sportsthoughts (171) – Reflections on the World Cup as England bow out

  1. Dood says:

    Great piece, John, and excellent analysis throughout.

    I agree entirely about those three reasons. Southgate earned a huge chunk of that goodwill with his overall management of the team, and of his mastery of the role as a whole; and while there have always been misgivings about his tactics, I thought he answered his critics strongly in the Senegal and France matches. I really couldn’t fault that team selection. And yes, there’s plenty to look forward to, with an emerging generation of successful international youth players we’re only just starting to hear about.

    As for the circumstances, I agree that this one felt a little – different, or distant? I think I mentioned that my QPR friends A. and D. went out there expecting to feel alienated, but instead felt incredibly welcome! But that’s the difference, I guess, between the warmth of fellow football fans and the iciness of Qatar, FIFA, Infantini and the rest.

    (In that regard, although Beckham was roundly vilified, I suspect he will find a way back? At least no Irons fans were hanging him in effigy this time.)

    Your pathway for the next three games mirrors mine. I’d love Morocco to triumph tomorrow, but don’t expect it; but I do suspect that Argentina may have one canny, and one truly powerful game left in them. (With them, the beauty and the beast are never far apart.) If it’s France, it could be a great final – but I’d love Messi to sign off with the big one.

  2. I thought the English team were good and for the first time since I started following the World Cup I rooted for them. I wish they had not met France and had gone further. Yes, even I’ve not been following this edition with the usual enthusiasm partly because of all that’s gone into its hosting and the remaining due to the exciting time I’ve been having watching leopards and pythons and Sarus Cranes and such 🙂

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