Last Saturday England, normally the laughing stock of international football, somehow beat World champions Spain 1-0 at Wembley. How did they do it? More importantly, will this aid success at next year’s European Championships?
The World Cup last year served to confirm what most had grown to realise over the last decade – that the golden generation (Wayne Rooney, John Terry et al) were not only un-golden, but have a habit of self-destructing at major tournaments. For too long England have looked for a hero, a Hollywood narrative of big players and big moments like Michael Owen in 1998 and David Beckham in 2002. Where did we get in those tournaments? Never past the quarter-finals.
In an enlightening interview last week, Xabi Alonso remarked, “Sometimes it seems the English don’t rate those who make the team work rather than standing out themselves”. This should undoubtedly be the basis for a squad in Euro 2012 – a collective identity which performs a function. People shouldn’t shudder at an unglamorous front three of Walcott, Bent and Milner. The team is there to do a job – it’s not there to make some idiot on TalkSport say we have the best eleven in the world.
England aren’t underachievers anymore because they don’t have a world class squad. No player in the England squad for the Spain friendly had been nominated for the Ballon D’Or. England’s win over Spain doesn’t mean we aren’t mediocre – we are, but this mediocrity doesn’t prevent us from achieving. Plenty of weak squads have gone far in the past – look at Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004.
The absence of Wayne Rooney from the group stage due to suspension helps, because whoever his replacement is – Bent, Welbeck or, dare I say it, Zamora – will have to be the right player for the system we use, and not the superstar who excites the imagination. Look at the team that beat the world champions on Saturday. Where were Rooney, Terry and Ferdinand?
England beat Spain because they absorbed pressure. That must be the approach at Euro 2012, a tournament where England could find themselves in a group with Spain, Portugal and France. The danger is that England start to believe they are better than they are. England lost to Germany in the second round in South Africa because they underestimated them (and played Matthew Upson). Humility has never gone hand-in-hand with the England team, but then neither has success.
For the first time, the phrase “England expects” wasn’t applicable because everyone was convinced Spain were going to win. England didn’t expect, and this time, England won.