In the wake of the World Cup draw – which saw England put into a group with Uruguay, Costa Rica and Italy – the overwhelming response has been negative. From pundits and fans alike, the consensus is that England are going to get stuffed this summer in Brazil. A whole host of excuses are already being manufactured for England’s expected failure. The long distance that England must travel to play their game against Italy in Manaus, combined with the appalling weather conditions for football – 80% humidity and average temperatures of above 30°c – and a tough group are the most prominent in a battery of defeatism.
However, none of these are good reasons for failure. Let us firstly examine the most prominent reason suggested for failure: the strength, or perceived strength of the other teams in England’s group. Uruguay, with a resurgent Luis Suarez, and Italy, with players like Ballotelli and Pirlo are supposedly too good for England. This is hardly realistic. In England’s last meeting with Italy, with Pirlo in the form of his life, England still managed to grind out a 0-0 draw, and went out on penalties. Uruguay, we would expect England to beat or at the worst draw with and realistically England should beat Costa Rica. This analysis, which I feel is harsh to England, gives us four points; often enough to qualify in second place from the group. This also does not take into account upsets for other teams. Italy will also worry about Uruguay. Realistically, England have an excellent chance of qualification. It is not necessary to avoid defeat in the group; Spain lost their first game to Switzerland in 2010, and yet were deserved champions. England are good enough to qualify from this group, even if they do come second, and in all likelihood only grind out the points that they do get.
They are also not in the toughest group. Group G, with Germany, Ghana, Portugal and the USA is in my opinion the true “Group of Death”, with one of the two indisputed greats of the current era playing for Portugal, and one of the favourites to win the tournament in Germany, along with previous quarter finalists Ghana, and the USA, who get stronger every year. The bottom line is that the “minnows” of every group are no longer a guaranteed three points for any team; the World Cup is getting tougher and England need to improve in response.
The weather and travel are also said to be nails in England’s coffin. From their base in Rio, England must travel 1777 miles, to play a game in high temperatures. However, things are much the same for Italy in terms of travel, and the conditions for the match are exactly the same for both teams. Furthermore, if there is one team in the world who it would be good to play in the heat, it is Italy. Their slower, more cautious style of play is far less wearing to defend against than Spain or Germany, who would monopolise possession and force England to run. Without the ball against Italy, England can sit back against their own box, defending in depth, something not possible against the Germans or the Spaniards, who are far better at unlocking packed defences. Indeed, the Italians, whilst better at keeping the ball than England, also tend to drop back when not in possession, and will put little pressure on England in their own half, as they demonstrated against Spain and Germany in 2012.
Both teams will have to deal with the heat, which will make for a less intense match. It has been said that the heat will favour Italy. However, all of the England squad have played abroad, on pre-season tours to hot countries, and are therefore not unused to football in the heat. The humidity, which is far more difficult to play in, will be new to both teams; nowhere in Italy can compete with this kind of tropical humidity. If anything, in the one match where England are in all likelihood the genuinely weaker team, having conditions designed to kill skilful, attacking football might be a blessing. Had any game where England needed three points been played in Manaus, we would have to worry. Comfortingly, the must-win games against Costa Rica and Uruguay are in relatively normal conditions. The weather and travel are therefore not excuses.
I do not want to suggest that England will win the World Cup. England would have to perform far better than recent performances to be in with a chance of winning the whole tournament. But the general tone of the debate is that England are doomed because they are playing robust, talented teams in the group stage, in tough conditions. This does not stand up. Of course we are playing tough teams – it’s the World Cup. To get anywhere in the World Cup you have to beat tough teams. If that starts in the group, so be it. In recent years, England have failed to build a winning mentality. It has always been the ref, the conditions, or the wrongful red card – anything but the fact that the team does not perform well enough to beat the best in the world. We need to face the fact that to be the best, you have to beat the best. If we are serious about progressing into the latter stages of the World Cup, this group should be looked at as a chance to put out one good team, and put the other into a less favourable draw, conditions and travel times be damned. However, any problems with our draw are of our own making- players who do not have the technical ability to keep possession in the heat, and a lack of strength in depth to make us true contenders for the World Cup.
The fact that playing conditions and opposition like Uruguay are causing concern are symptoms of a general malaise, and will not be the true cause of England’s downfall. If we do not qualify from the group, or if we do not win the World Cup – which I doubt England will – the reason will be because England are not good enough to win.