I’m going to take a small break from writing about Arsenal today to vent on a subject that has infuriated me since listening to the European Championship draw on Friday evening, and that is the supreme arrogance of English pundits with regard to the national team. We all know that England are forever overhyped before major tournaments, but it is the dismissive contempt for many of the other countries (those not called Spain, Germany or Italy) that winds me up the most.
England got a relatively kind draw (at least compared to other groups), with Ukraine, Sweden and France their three opponents. But by the same token, those three countries probably feel they got a kind draw with England – after all, Germany and Italy were also in pot 2, and would be expected to go further. Despite this, Radio 5 had Paul Ince and Darren Anderton (I know) talking about the draw, and both concluded that England would be favourites for all three games, and should progress with ease.
Let’s start with France, the opening game. They’re terrible, right? Laughable in the World Cup, an imploding disaster of egos? Well, no, at least not anymore. Since Domenech’s hopeless reign ended, they’ve enjoyed something of a renaissance, qualifying top of their group, and embarking on an unbroken 18 match unbeaten streak, stretching back fifteen months, and including a comfortable win over England, something they have managed on each of the last three meetings between the countries. Even with Rooney, England would not be favourites for that one.
Next up, Sweden. England’s recent friendly win over the Swedes was their first triumph over them in 43 years. In between, the two countries had met twelve times, with Sweden winning four, and the other eight clashes ending in draws. Hardly a record that backs up the ‘overwhelming favourites’ label. The Swedes may not be as strong as they have been in previous years, but it takes remarkable arrogance not to notice that the same could be said of England. A draw, as ever between these two nations, is the likely result.
And then, finally, England face Ukraine in Donetsk. Hosts are always terrible in international tournaments, right? And as we know from club football, Ukraine is such an easy place to go and get results, isn’t it? Oh.
The fact is – all four teams in the group will be pleased with the draw, and confident of progression. But to hear pundits dismissively talk down the other three countries is exactly why so many nations are willing us to fail. Time and time again we convince ourselves that we’re amongst the contenders, but a quick look at the statistics reveals a telling tale.
Of the 16 countries competing, nine (Germany, Russia, Holland, Italy, Spain, Czech Rep, Denmark, France and Greece) have lifted the trophy. One more (Portugal) has competed in the final. You can also add Ukraine (four finals, and one triumph, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union) and Croatia (two finals when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia) to that list, which leaves just four of the sixteen countries as nations yet to appear in the final.
Those four countries are England, Ireland, Sweden and Poland.
Given that, it is remarkable that there is any optimism around the national side, particularly when you consider that the ‘golden generation’ (which was hardly golden, at all) has passed, and the only striking threat is suspended for the entire group stage. It says everything about England’s lack of forward options that he will still be taken.
But I have nothing against optimism – having unrealistic hopes is part of being a football fan. But listening to Ince and Anderton dismiss our opponents as trivialities en route to the knockout stages was cringeworthy in the extreme.
England are often criticised for being a quarter final team. To be so again could be argued an overachievement.