So, England are in the quarter-finals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. They overcame the group stage with relative ease, although I was worried about England’s weak mentality which often underestimates opposition considered inferior to ourselves; a dangerous arrogance. I’m pleased England proved me wrong, although I was a little worried about England’s performance against Belgium, ableit England had already qualified and playing their second team.
Despite England beating Colombia yesterday, I am in two minds about this mentality of avoiding certain teams. I think one has to beat whoever comes their way, be it Brazil or whoever. No other team is trying to avoid playing England right now, and for me it shows a cowardice on our part. Ironically, France is a country that Britons often look down upon for just that: cowardice, yet they played Argentina in the second round, now they face Uruguay and then maybe Brazil in the semi-final; three very tough South American opponents, without complaining or wishing for an easier draw. France, Brazil and co. are not on the favourable side of the draw, but any of those teams could well be better prepared for the final than those on the perceived easier side due to being accustomed to playing seemingly better quality opposition. If England want to show true three lion spirit: stop fearing opposition, and take what comes. By announcing we are in the easier draw is just the impetus opposing teams need to show just how wrong we are. Colombia, using rough ’em up tactics, were anything but easy. Sweden will be even harder, and their media is already reckoning England will be feeling the normal hubris, which we often do against Scandinavian teams. Remember Iceland two years ago? England has to be professional.
Funnily enough, there is also a side of me that thinks Gareth Southgate pulled a stroke of genius by fielding a weaker team against Belgium. Forget what I said about cowardice: of course I’d rather England face Sweden than Brazil. Anyone would. No slight on Sweden. But Brazil are Brazil and have Coutinho et al, as well as five world cups to their name, and Sweden don’t. It’s not a reason to write Sweden off mind; we have a woeful record against them and Southgate has been warning that. Sweden look a more compact and together team without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, knocking out Holland, Italy and Germany (the latter indirectly) along the way: major scalps. Yet, one would be an idiot to prefer playing Brazil over Sweden at this stage.
England v Colombia
Finally England won through penalties. It hasn’t happened since 1996 against Spain at Euro 96. I suffered five heart attacks during the game yesterday. I feel England just about edged Colombia, even though Colombia had the better chances and played without their star man, James Rodriguez. To an extent, I have empathy, especially as we England fans have suffered so much through penalty shoot outs. But on the most part, I think some of their players had a warped view of football rules and tried to kick England off the pitch.
Yes, there are differences in culture in terms of tackling. For example, the Premier League lets a lot more tackles go than mainland Europe. Latin American defences are known for their aggression compared to European or Asian teams, yet in this tournament and the 2014 World Cup, it’s been taken to a whole new level and it’s harming Latin America more than helping them, giving away needless free kicks and penalties through grappling, kicking out, delibrate obstruction and provocation. Hondurans will hate me saying this, but Mexico is one of the few Latin American teams that have played with a cleaner defensive tactics in this world cup, along with Brazil and Uruguay, and it’s no surprise the three teams had/are having good tournaments. VAR and video support is going to harm Latin American teams even more if they don’t clean up their act. Referees can play back and have wisened up to this antics. I say this as a fan of Latin American football, but it’s something teams here have to adjust to if they want success. The World Cup is now being dominated by European teams; 6 of the 8 quarter finalists are European, which have won the last three world cups. European teams will go to ground under heavy challenges and will do so convincingly, and they are no longer provoked as easily. England of old would have lost their cool against Colombia (remember David Beckham against Argentina in 1998?). England of new stayed, more or less, calm throughout. Southgate’s charm rubbing off or England being smarter? I think it’s a lot of both.
Saying that, Jose Pekerman, the Colombian football coach, has got to be blind, stupid, a bad loser or saving face after the game against England, when he pretty much blamed the English players for diving. England could have easily had a second penalty and the Colombian player Berrios should have been sent off for the naughty headbutt on Jordan Henderson. The referee, if anything, favoured Colombia. They received 6 yellow cards to England’s 2, which tells the story (although Maguire too was lucky to stay on the pitch for striking out Ospina towards the end of extra time; players have been sent off for much less). Every time England went near their box, they were bombarded by hacking and grappling. That’s one way to stop the opposing team from playing, but it’s not in the rules. Of course I am biased, but Colombia (nor Diego Maradona) cannot complain. Sorry Pekerman, England wasn’t diving.
I am pleased England exorcised a few demons by winning in penalties, and it was a beautiful irony it was Gareth Southgate who coached England to win their first since 1996. It was he who missed that all important penalty in Euro 96, and he has carried the burden for 22 years, with his name synonymous with that missed penalty. He showed great humility to console Carlos Bacca who missed the Colombian penalty and the Colombian team at the end of the game, instead of celebrating. This also inspired the social media phenomenon, #Southgatewould, where fans are listing the hypothetical good deeds Southgate would do. It is also good to see England playing with a bit more character and togetherness, rather than 12 years ago when there was a lot of individual stars but no team. It’s great to see them answering their critics; less than a year ago England fans showed discontent through stadium walkouts and paper aeroplane messages. I doubted Gareth Southgate. I admit it. But I’m glad he’s proving me wrong, along with many other fans. He has introduced new measures to get the team passing and pressing in a new formation, as well as playing together, with a connection with the fans again, reminiscent of Italia 90 with Bobby Robson.
I still doubt England will win the World Cup, but I think they deserve to be in the quarter finals. Let’s hope they continue playing as well as they can. As for the game against Sweden, we’ll see what happens…