“We always have to believe in what is possible in life and not be hindered by history or expectations.” Gareth Southgate
Every four years, England goes into World Cup frenzy. The infamous “they think it’s all over” moment and the iconic images of Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet trophy in 1966 are replayed ad nauseum and fans across the country once again start to believe that this pride of Lions might be able to add to their only World Cup victory.
Whether it be the chatter on the street and in pubs up and down the land, or the media furore and 24/7 coverage that surrounds The Three Lions, World Cup fever has struck again, and the conversation is always centred around one question…can England go all the way this time?
England fans, however, have a right to feel a sense of trepidation, even dread, before any World Cup tournament. After all, FIFA’s quadrennial showpiece has not been a happy stomping ground for England since that glorious day at Wembley 56 years ago. No matter which country or continent the World Cup has taken place, the spectre of failure has loomed over England since that day.
Since reaching the pinnacle in 1966, few international football teams have experienced the pain on the world stage like the English. After their reign as world champions was ended by West Germany in Mexico, 1970, England’s subsequent World Cup performances have for the most part, ended in dramatic circumstances.
England did not even qualify for the World Cup in both 1974 and 1978, limped out of the 1982 edition with little more than a whimper and in 1986 were on the receiving end of both the sublime and ridiculous. Diego Maradona’s notorious ‘Hand of God’ goal gave eventual champions Argentina the lead in the quarter final and in a moment of pure football genius, Maradona then picked the ball up on the halfway line, embarked upon a mazy, mesmeric run, carving through several English defenders before slotting the ball past a helpless Peter Shilton.
There were Gascoigne’s tears in 1990 and an agonizing penalty shootout loss to the Germans, England didn’t qualify in 1994 and in 1998 their tournament was again ended by Argentina in dramatic circumstances. Poster boy David Beckham’s red card for petulantly kicking Diego Simeone changed the game and despite a piece of magic from Michael Owen, England were out again.
In 2002, superstar Beckham’s broken metatarsal was the big story before the tournament but defeat to Brazil and a famous goalkeeping error from David Seaman ended their tournament. Wayne Rooney saw red as the Portuguese knocked England out in 2006 and in 2010, Frank Lampard’s goal that never was contributed to another World Cup knockout against the dreaded Germans. 2014’s failure to get out of the group stages was a shock, even by England’s poor tournament standards.
In 2018 however, Gareth Southgate guided England to a semi-final – their first since 1990 and their best performance on the world stage in nearly 30 years. Combine this performance with England having reached the final of the Euro 2020 tournament, fans are cautiously optimistic about The Three Lions’ chances in 2022. But what must England get right if they’re to succeed in Qatar?
Squad selection is naturally essential – picking players on form and in their correct positions are often aspects that have been seemingly neglected by previous England coaches. Selecting players for specific opposition is also a balance that Gareth Southgate will have to carefully manage. Given the riches in talent he has at his disposal in his 26-man squad, England have on paper, one of the best squads in the tournament and if utilised correctly, will see England go a long way in the tournament.
Managing the fitness of key players is also a delicate balancing act for the England management. Kyle Walker and Kalvin Phillips go into the tournament having played very little football this season, James Maddison picked up a knee injury in Leicester’s final game before the World Cup and with captain and talisman Harry Kane also susceptible to injuries, keeping these players fit will be vital for England. If England can keep the likes of Kane, Jude Bellingham, Declan Rice and Phil Foden fit throughout the tournament, they are more than capable of beating any side in the draw.
Current Form -v- Tournament Form
We must also not forget the role that form plays in the ultimate result of the competition. England have not won in six consecutive matches in the run up to the World Cup, but this lack of form has in many ways, lowered expectations and decreased what is an incredible amount of pressure on the players’ shoulders. Whilst England’s recent form may not have been especially eye catching, their tournament form since 2018 has been exemplary. A semi-final in Russia in 2018, a final at the Euro 2020 and whilst both ended in defeat, the players must have taken great confidence from achieving more than any England football team since 1966.
Tactical decisions and in-game management will also be vital in Qatar. Southgate was heavily criticised for not making changes against the Croatians in the 2018 semi-final and in the Euro 2020 final, England scored after three minutes before opting to sit back, allow Italian possession and ultimately concede a goal. With the attacking talents available to Southgate, England fans have been clamouring for him to throw caution to the wind and go all out for victory. Has Gareth Southgate learned from his managerial mistakes in 2018 and 2020? We’ll all just have to see what happens when England take to the field in Qatar.
The quality of opposition also determines whether England can be successful. Reigning champions France have a great chance again, but with injuries to Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté they’re not the strength they were in 2018. Germany have a young, talented yet inexperienced squad, the Dutch are playing their first World Cup since 2014 and the European champion Italians didn’t even make the tournament. Belgium, whilst still dangerous, are an ageing side that have not been able to convert their ‘Golden Generation’ into any tournament success and Spain are no longer the team that dominated the world between 2008 and 2012.
It is the South American giants, Brazil and Argentina that pose the biggest threat to England winning this tournament. Argentina are reigning Copa America champions, and in Lionel Messi they have one of the greatest players ever to kick a football, playing in what will be his final World Cup. Brazil boasts what is probably the best squad at the World Cup – strength and depth across all areas of the pitch with wizardry from the likes of Neymar and Vinicius Jr., ‘The Seleçao’ are a team to be feared and respected but beating them is certainly not inconceivable.
Adapting To The Environment
England’s success in Qatar will however not just lie in squad selection, managerial decisions and opposition quality, England’s players must adapt quickly to their environment and assimilate to life in the Gulf desert. From soaring temperatures which could reach 40°c and above, cultural differences with the host nation and a perceived lack of opportunity to escape their training base, England’s footballers, so used to the freedom they enjoy at home, will have an entirely different experience for however long they remain in Qatar. Getting the players comfortable in their surroundings, facilities and routines whilst preparing for the games ahead is essential.
Lastly, but by no means least, luck will also play a determining factor into where the World Cup will find its home for the next four years. As previously discussed, luck has not been on the side of the English when it comes to World Cup time and after so much poor fortune in the last 50 years or so, surely now is the time that for the football gods to shine on England and deliver that little slice of luck that has been so inconspicuous in previous tournaments.
There is little doubt that England can win in Qatar, but the stars must align in their favour – they have the players, the experience and the setup to make a serious mark on this winter World Cup. Held for the first time during the festive period, wouldn’t an England win be the perfect Christmas present and the ideal way to end what has been a tough year for many?