By James Cunliffe
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Welcome to London24’s weekly column taking a frustrated look at the world of sport and having a good old-fashioned rant to get it off our chests. This week, Brazil’s Neymar dismisses England’s threat and he’d be right...
“Three Lions on a shirt, Jules Rimet still gleaming, 30 years of hurt never stopped me dreaming,” went the chorus to the famous Baddiel and Skinner England anthem to Euro 96.
At the time it lifted a nation but with every passing year the lyrics read more like an obituary for England’s international hopes of a second coming. Only the numbers change.
“I know that was then but it could be again,” continued the ditty, but not according to Brazilian superstar Neymar.
Forty-seven years and counting – that’s how long England have waited to add to their solitary World Cup success in 1966, and according to £50million rated Santos striker, we’ll all soon be marking half century with nothing but hand-me-down nostalgia and that infernal tune reminding of us of decades worth of flops.
"The sad fact is that even when you look straight at the Manchester United man [Wayne Rooney] you see a man capable of winning a game but an individual who has consistently flattered to deceive once he’s pulled on the white of shirt England - his membership to the truly elite yet to be ratified"
Roy Hodgson’s side are yet to even qualify for next year’s edition in the South American Samba capital but the two football nations meet tonight at Wembley in the first of a friendly double-header that marks the start of the Football Association’s 150-year anniversary.
It’s an interesting occasion that brings together the nation that invented the game with the country that perfected it - not that FIFA is able to recognise the difference.
There’s an old adage that if you allow a million monkeys to bash away at a million typewriters they’d eventually compile the complete works of Shakespeare. What you may not know is that world football’s governing body have their very own literarily-inclined simian workforce, but so far all it has managed to come up with is a world ranking list that asserts the frankly ludicrous notion that England - in sixth place - are 12 places higher and therefore better than Brazil.
That’s one World Cup in 1966 to us, compared to five World Cups, two runners-up spots and eight Copa America triumphs (three during its pre-seventies South American Championships guise) to Brazil.
Incidentally, the Samba Kings have also won all but one of the five international tournaments played on their home soil, while no European nation has ever been crowned champions of the world in an edition held in the Americas.
So the odds are already stacked against England rocking up in Rio next year and coming back to Blighty as heroes.
Still, the outcome of tonight’s match will inevitably be used as a yardstick, by the English at least.
For Neymar, the Three Lions just don’t have the players to be considered threats to his country and the likes of Argentina and current champions Spain in 2014. More to the point, the 21-year-old does not believe England will trouble these big guns because, in Wayne Rooney, they are nothing but a one-man team.
That, I’m afraid, is Neymar being generous.
He said: “Once you look past Rooney you don’t see an obvious player who can win them a game.”
The sad fact is that even when you look straight at the Manchester United man you see a man capable of winning a game but an individual who has consistently flattered to deceive once he’s pulled on the white of shirt England - his membership to the truly elite yet to be ratified.
Neymar’s case for the prosecution was that the afore mentioned major nations have numerous superstars to step up should another endure a bad game.
What happens when Rooney has a bad game? Well, the answer has been there for 10 years. England will lurch into the quarter finals, make their excuses and leave via a series of 12-yard disasters.
That was the all too familiar fate of the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ when England were said to have world-class players coming out of their ears. Some still remain.
Steven Gerrard will no doubt captain the side at Wembley tonight. In his prime he was the sacrificial lamb – never accommodated in his preferred position and thus never allowed to drive the national side on as he has done for Liverpool.
For all his hero status, David Beckham’s ascension to the top bracket of global footballers was and is based in hyperbole – as the media scrum surrounding his move as shirt-seller extraordinaire to Paris St Germain highlights. Of the Manchester United starlets Beckham graduated with, it was not he but Paul Scholes who was lauded by modern great Zinedine Zidane as the complete midfielder – only then to call time on his international career in 2004. Of course, the well-travelled Beckham could deliver a world-class set-piece, but in terms of being a fully fledged midfielder in the best-of-the-best bracket, he has always fallen short.
The English game has had top drawer goalscorers aplenty within that generation of footballers but only Michael Owen found the net consistently for the national side. His was a world-class potential damaged irreparably by a move to Real Madrid, injuries and the rise of Rooney. Now at Stoke and with his last strike for England a distant five years ago, neither age nor form suggests that will ever change.
Arguably the mantle of game-changer will soon fall at the feet of Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, perhaps it already has, despite a 20-month absence from international duty through injury.
Skipper Gerrard this week said that the youngster has the potential to become “one of the best in the world”. Indeed, the 21-year-old is his obvious successor and he emphasised that by overshadowing the Liverpool ace during the Gunners’ 2-2 Premier League draw with the Merseysiders at the Emirates last week.
But even if Wilshere fulfils his potential it will not be to add to the threat posed by Rooney. Hope springs eternal that the former Everton man can break his decade-long trend of going missing in an England shirt, but past form suggests otherwise. And a passing of the torch from on to the other, or whoever follows the Arsenal man as the next great hope, and it will still prove Neymar right – the Three Lions will remain a one-man team.
Plans are at afoot to change that as tonight’s friendly against Brazil is the first time the England team will have prepared for a match at the FA’s new St George’s Park complex.
The National Football Centre has been created, among other reasons, to produce world-class talents, and successful ones at that, just as the French and Spanish have done is spells over the last 20 years.
But that is for the future. We’re looking at another 10 years, at least, before the talent starts rolling off the conveyor belt and then it’s still only with expectation, rather than cast-iron guarantee, that there will be fruits from the labours ripe enough to bring the good times back. At which point, Wilshere will be entering the twilight of his career.
That is position of Ashley Cole. Tonight he will become only the seventh England player to reach the 100-cap milestone.
World-class there is no doubt.
The 32-year-old has been the country’s one truly consistent player throughout that Golden Generation up until now because, while our attack-minded players have come a cropper against the lesser lights of world football, let alone the best players on the planet, the Chelsea defender has kept the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo in his pocket, both in Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006.
But as the longest-serving England player never to have scored a goal - he made his full international debut in 2001 – Cole has never been a man to win matches. Occasionally help prolong the agony, yes.
When they have been bad England have merely acted as a stepping stone to other nations, departing the World Cups of 2002 and 2010 against Brazil and Germany respectively with nothing so much as a whimper.
When they have been ‘good’ England proved stubborn in normal and extra-time but desperately devoid of quality and guile come the inevitable penalty shoot-out.
That suggests two things. One, that we are awful at spot-kicks, and that’s not been a new revelation since Stuart Pearce – a hard man nicknamed Psycho – missed from 12 yards and ended Italia 90 in tears.
The second thing it suggests is that Neymar is correct. England are not a threat.
Once the knockout rounds of big tournaments come around other teams need not even beat the Three Lions, merely tame them for 120 minutes and let history, tradition, nerves and fate do the rest.
So, lyrics to songs can be changed – 47, 48, 50, even 60 years of hurt and more will likely never stop England dreaming, but the chances of glory? Dream on.