If there’s one thing that English participation at a major tournament will guarantee, it’s that most of the football-supporting population of the nation will find themselves getting carried away rather easily.
Whether for positive or negative reasons, the extreme reactions that follow almost every match are as predictable as the outcome to penalty shoot-outs that the players themselves are invariably involved in at this stage of almost every other calendar year.
And there’s no sign of that pattern changing, based on the aftermath of both matches played so far in the 2014 FIFA World Cup that, based on results between other teams, have ultimately led to England’s early elimination.
Going into the competition with relatively modest expectations was some progress on the usual hype and overly optimistic predictions, but that soon changed after a display against Italy which, despite an eventual 2-1 loss, offered plenty of signs to suggest that England were well-equipped to recover – and progress.
Such newly found optimism even led to England being considered favourites to win their second fixture against Uruguay, which was originally deemed to be the toughest challenge facing Roy Hodgson’s men.
The fact that Uruguay had been convincingly beaten by Costa Rica in their opening group game didn’t help to keep English expectations in check, and instead only caused more certainty that England would triumph over their South American opponents.
However, as was the case in the opening game against Italy, things didn’t go exactly to plan, and England came out second best after a game which they might not only have drawn, but possibly won.
As expected, the post-mortem was instant, and utterly damning of the players and tactics.
Though despite the predictable nature of the reaction in phone-ins and forums, it was difficult not to be a little shocked by a tone of almost sheer anger at the way in which England’s World Cup bid was on the brink of being over, only a week after the tournament kicked-off.
Disappointment of two straight defeats is understandable, as is a degree of frustration that so many players were unable to replicate their club form – even if the assumption that footballers will perform exactly the same for their country as they do in the Premier League is always easier in theory than in practice.
The most disappointing thing about England’s performance against Uruguay was that they were clearly capable of making life difficult for their opponents, but despite enjoying periods of controlling the game, there were too many other occasions when England didn’t look to be showing any urgency in going for the win.
At the risk of looking at somewhere else to place blame, there was also a couple of refereeing decisions which could have changed the whole nature of the game that went against England. Both involved offences by Uruguayan defender Diego Godin which should have resulted in his sending off, having collected an early caution in the game for a handball.
How different the game could have been if Godin, Uruguay’s captain and defensive rock, had been dismissed in the first half for halting Daniel Sturridge’s run towards goal with an unpleasant forearm swing that caught the England striker’s throat. The fact that the decision went against England shouldn’t be used as any sort of excuse, but it was a straightforward decision that the referee chose not to make and, with the score still 0-0, would certainly have changed the game.
But now for some perspective. England have lost narrowly against two of the tournament’s better teams, and in matches that neither opponent truly dominated. Each game was a relatively close contest.
Compare that to England’s last two major competitions. In being knocked out of the last two international tournaments when facing a similar calibre of opponent, England have been thoroughly outclassed. Germany’s 4-1 over England during the 2010 World Cup was in no way flattering, while Italy’s performance in the 2012 European Championship quarter final was almost as one-sided.
If there’s to be any consolation from Brazil, it is that England have competed far better against two sides who have both achieved recent success at international level, and the almost unprecedented standard of teams competing in the same first round group stage always left the possibility of a swift exit from the competition for one of the teams involved.
Never before have three former winners been drawn in the same first round group, with all three countries currently in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings. Of the other seven groups at the 2014 World Cup, five have only one top 10 team, and Group H doesn’t even manage that.
If flaws in the system which produces the ranking are such that it isn’t a reliable measure of a national team’s strength, then a simple look at the actual recent achievements of Italy (2006 World Cup winners, 2012 European Championship finalists) and Uruguay (2010 World Cup semi-finalists; Copa America holders) paints a clearer picture.
During the last World Cup, England were grouped with USA, Algeria and Slovenia It was a group in which qualification was expected to be comfortable, but in which England failed to win either of their first two games and ultimately had to grind out a scrappy 1-0 win over Slovenia in order to claim second place in the group.
Whatever disappointment there is concerning England’s early exit from Brazil, there’s certainly more positives that can be taken than the performances and results from South Africa four years earlier – and far fewer reasons for criticism.