When England was drawn into a group with Russia, Wales and Slovakia, I must admit, and I don’t think I was alone, I was rubbing my hands with glee. To be fair, I think we England fans had a right to be. A 100% record in the qualifiers, a nice brand of football and a wave goodbye (with a large pinch of good riddance) to the last of England’s golden generation which promised so much but returned with zilch. There was a reason to feel good as an England fan, especially after we limped out of the World Cup and we were now in a group which had no any other powerhouses. There was a thought that we could sail this group.
A draw with Russia, the worst team in the tournament, an injury time win against Wales and a 0-0 draw with Slovakia meant we finished second, which could have left us facing Portugal, who knocked England out twice out of major tournaments a decade ago, one of which saw Wayne Rooney being sent off for squelching Ricardo Carvalho’s testicles into the turf and his Manchester United team-mate Ronaldo showing his true friendship and loyalty by bellowing out Rooney’s stamping sins to the referee (yes Ronaldo, there’s a reason why people think you’re an imbecile, in fact there are a few, and most of them don’t actually stem from jealousy). We actually have Iceland. On paper, it seems favourable. In reality, not so much. Ask Holland! This small island in the middle of the Atlantic with a population the size of a small city in the UK knocked out the men who invented Total Football in the qualifiers, beating them home and away. They are no pushovers, as Mr Cristiano “dodgy eyebrows” Ronaldo also found out.
The thing about being an England fan is you can kind of see why people think we’re arrogant. A fantastic example is the 1998 obnoxious fan-anthem, “Vindaloo“, by Fat Les, which contains the chorus, “We’re gon-na score one more than YOU. ENG-LAND.” Yes, I know, not exactly lyrics you would expect from a country that boasts William Shakespeare and John Lennon. Underlying this though, we had no right to think that Group B was going to be easy, despite our dominance in the games, and it gives opposition that ounce of motivation to prove a point and laugh in our faces. We got through, just, finishing behind a team which in my last article about Euro 2016 which I, er, referred to rather arrogantly as a little annoying dog. Wales. From one particular Welshman I received the following, amusing meme:
Then again, I think had Germany, France, Spain or Italy been in England’s group, they too would have fancied their chances. It just goes to show how distant the England team is from the real creme-de-la-creme of Europe. Are we England fans living in a funny fantasy land with a too high opinion of ourselves? Obviously, not all of us are arrogant. Many of us are actually quite humble. We know what the team can achieve, but we also know rarely does it do it. Every now and then we thrash a team or beat a good team in a friendly, kind of a one hit wonder, and then we flop in major tournaments.
Being an England fan is a right mixed bag, and so are the fans. As stated above, we have an arrogance, a self-righteousness, but it is more blind hope than arrogance on many occasions (the same could be said with many British opinions regarding the EU, especially the deluded Brexit campaigners). The expectation created in the media makes us feel euphoria after a win and huge crushing come downs after a loss, which makes supporting England very emotionally hard. Maybe it’s karma for our arrogance. Or maybe violence.
As well as being seen as the creators of football, all over the world the English are also very well known for being the birthplace of “hooliganism”; a word that has entered the Spanish dictionary with fingers pointed directly at us. To most Brits, it is deeply embarrassing. Unfortunately it seems to have reared its ugly head during the early days of the cup in Marseille. Hot sun and lots of beer does bizarre things to a British mind at the best of times, especially when it feels excited or patriotic about a team playing a sport that they feel they created with their very own mits. It may have even been provoked in some quarters. But taunting the police? People who were petrified of terrorist attacks before the tournament now have to deal with drunken Englishman? Not our proudest moment. Another thing I abhor is booing the opposition’s national anthem, like what happened against Russia. It’s not hooliganism exactly, but a very ugly trait of xenophobia that is being broadcasted around the world, and we’re the mugs doing it. Hondurans ask me about hooliganism and I always say that I have never witnessed any violence in or around an English stadium (ironically I have in Spain, Brazil and Honduras from the barras bravas and Ultras groups. Many fans here and in Spain claim it’s passion and an expression of loyalty. I tell them it’s una gran paja – bullshit – it’s just looking to cause trouble). Saying that, I did once see a fight between two Birmingham supporters arguing about the formation in a game against Bolton Wanderers. The Argentine friend accompanying me that day thought it was like being at the circus. Back to the point though, I’d come to the opinion that hooliganism had largely been eradicated in England. Obviously not. A gift to the world that it would rather do without.
On the most part, I think he has done a decent job. He was thrown into the job in 2012, after Fabio Capello quit over the John Terry saga, although most of us knew it was Capello had grown bored with the job and didn’t want his reputation further tarnished with failure in that European Championship. Hodgson entered the role as a rather unpopular choice in the mass media; they preferred Harry Redknapp. Seen as conservative and boring, Hodgson got the team together just weeks before the tournament and they played maybe not the most beautiful brand of football, but introducing a couple of much needed young talents. The World Cup two years ago was a disaster but, again, he was developing a new team. Now he is here, winning all the qualifiers, bring fresh talent through with a mouth-watering frontline at a time when the English league is heaped with 65% of foreigners, creating the St George’s footballing complex to bring together more talent, and playing an exciting brand of football none of the recent former England managers were able to create…..yet still he gets no credit.
It is an impossible job. Every armchair with an England fan sat in it is being weighed down to near collapse by the sheer criticism thrown at the coach, let alone the pundits and so called experts in the mass media, pointing out what they claim is a great incompetence. I would hate it. While I raised an eyebrow at a couple of names in the squad, sicknote Wilshire being one, I thought it was a brave selection of players picked out of a relatively small pool of players thanks to the Premier League refusing to put a cap on foreign players. I also bellowed at the television when he didn’t substitute Sterling and Kane quick enough against Russia. People found it very difficult to give Hodgson for the Wales subs that won England the game, but I had a degree of empathy for him regarding the six changes for the Slovakia game (I probably would have made seven and brought Barkley on for Lallana). Even if he had selected the same team, I think it would have finished 0-0. Slovakia played with a ten man defence and England could have played all day long and still not scored. The fact is, Slovakia’s game plan was better than England’s. They withstood the pressure and knew England had no plan B. That’s the criticism I level at Hodgson. Why not change the formation? Why not lay off the pressure and allow Slovakia to play, then hit them on the counter? The problem is, teams will have learned how to play against England, and now the knock out stages are upon us, they know we are not the best penalty takers in the world.
There are now five days of waiting before the Iceland game. It is a chance for the players to regroup and start figuring out new strategies. So far, the tournament has been a little dull. The big guns have been holding back somewhat, but it is fantastic to see smaller teams like Wales, Iceland and Northern Ireland get through the groups. I’m not sure I agree with the three team qualification in the group stage. I feel it has allowed teams like Slovakia to play for the point and sit back and defend. Hopefully now the tournament will get a bit more exciting as teams know there is more to play for.
Come on England!!