With about a week and a half to go until the big kick-off, it’s time to assess just how much of a chance England have of making progress in Brazil. Whilst the nation’s litany of major tournament failures throughout the years may have disillusioned many Three Lions fans, I believe there is still much cause for optimism that this young England squad can give a more than decent account of itself.
Four years ago was an embarrassment, not just a failure and the two or three World Cups which preceded that were all mediocre at best. In fact since winning it in 1966, we’ve only really come close to repeating the feat once and that was in 1990. The harsh but rather obvious reality is that we’re simply not world beaters any more, if we ever were at all. We’ve been fairly consistent in reaching the last 16 and quarter final stages at World Cups (and also the Euros) and if we’re to be brutally honest with ourselves, that’s our level. That is realistically as far as we can ever hope to go and getting beyond that has to go down as a real achievement.
However, after a bright season in which many promising youngsters have really begun to shine at club level, this England squad and the nation’s outlook on the tournament seems to be wholly different. Many of these youngsters are already showing impressive levels of maturity and look like terrific future prospects. Quite often, any English youngster that comes through fails to impress me one way or another. However, the likes of Luke Shaw, Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley in particular are like a breath of fresh air to the Premier League. Obviously, the honour of representing their country is entirely different and playing at a World Cup when they are really under the microscope of the national and international media is something they’ve yet to experience. However, if early impressions are anything to go by, I don’t think these young lads will be daunted.
One thing that will make tournament progress difficult is the fact that we’ve been given a tough group, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. However, we can hardly complain as we’ve had our fair share of luck in the last two draws for the 2006 and 2010 tournaments. It’s a group which I initially thought was too tough for us to overcome but maybe, playing the likes of Italy and Uruguay early on will help us rather than hinder us. If we pass these early tests and make it through the group (in either first or second place), it will really stand us in good stead going into the knock-out rounds where we will meet a similar calibre of opponent. If we’ve already successfully claimed a notable result in the tournament going into that, it has to give us confidence that we can knock out one of the big guns.
At Euro 2012, England met France in the opening game and gained a creditable draw and when we met Italy in the Quarter-Finals, we didn’t crumble against them either. Therefore, I believe that if we can emerge from this group (it still remains an “if” but I believe we will), it could lead to us being a tough nut to crack in the knock-out rounds. Our opponents in the second round will come from Group C which means it will be one of either; Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast or Japan. Therefore, even if we were to finish second in Group D (which is probably the most likely outcome), we should be able to beat any of those and advance into the Quarter-Finals. Obviously, it’s at that point where things get a lot tougher, really tough. If England were to finish second in the group and then make it through the second round, it looks inevitable that the hosts Brazil will be awaiting us. However, winning the group doesn’t guarantee an easier path as the defending champions Spain are the overwhelming favourites to win their group and then beat the runner up of Brazil’s group (assuming Brazil finish top).
Either way it looks difficult for England to do any better than our aforementioned limit of the last eight. Ultimately, it’s difficult to tell what our young squad is capable of this year. Many of the players in the squad have big futures ahead of them and we should be quietly confident of doing well in future tournaments. This summer will give us the chance to see how much potential is there and will be a good test as quality opposition is guaranteed right from the off. If we can get through the group, I believe we will become stronger and more confident but if we were to meet either Brazil and Spain, that would probably be the end of our tournament. But that would be far from a disgrace.