I fear for England.
Not because of Brexit: there’s time enough to worry about that. No, the danger I see is much closer at hand and potentially just as damaging for the national psyche. I am of course referring to the World Cup, international football’s flagship competition, which gets underway in Russia on 14 June.
At eight years old I was too young to appreciate England’s only triumph, in 1966 on home soil. I read somewhere that the final was the first programme in colour on British television but I don’t recall the matches being shown live at all on TV in Gibraltar. I had to wait until the feature film “Goal!” came to the cinema before seeing any of the action.
I was thrilled, but it’s been pretty much downhill all the way for us fans since then.
As holders in 1970 England lost 1-0 in the group stage to the brilliant Brazilians, the eventual winners. Nevertheless I have fond memories of that match: Gordon Banks’s famous fingertips save from Pelé’s downward header for one and the iconic images of Pelé and Bobby Moore smiling as they exchanged shirts at the end of the game. Besides, England still went through to the quarter-finals as group runners-up.
It was in that encounter against West Germany that I experienced my first proverbial “sick as a parrot” feeling in football. Alf Ramsey’s side was 2-0 up with twenty minutes to go when he made possibly the worst decision of his illustrious managerial career. With one eye prematurely on the semis, he took off the talismanic Bobby Charlton and immediately handed the Germans the initiative. They took full advantage, going on to win 3-2 after extra time.
The hangover from that defeat lasted 12 years as England failed to qualify for either of the next two Finals. I was glued to the radio for commentary on the must-win clash with Poland at Wembley on 17 October 1973.
A combination of bad luck – the home side had 36 shots on goal and hit the woodwork twice – and ‘keeper Jan Tomaszewski’s heroics enabled the Poles to come away with a draw and the English were eliminated. Mind you Poland ended up being one of the revelations of the 1974 World Cup. They finished third, beating Argentina, Italy and Brazil along the way and striker Grzegorz Lato won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer.
Italy was the nemesis in 1978 qualification; England missed out on goal difference and also failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the USA. Gary Lineker did win the Golden Boot in 1986 but the only other modest success came in 1990. Guided by Bobby Robson England reached the semi-finals, where they lost to West Germany (again) in a penalty shoot-out.
From 1998 onwards no England team has gone further than the last eight. In Brazil 2014 the Three Lions were more like pussycats; they lost to Italy and Uruguay and managed only a goalless draw against Costa Rica to finish bottom of Group D.
This time around the nation will demand more. Wins against Tunisia and tournament first-timers Panama would ensure qualification for the knockout stage before the showdown with top seeds Belgium on 28 June, but that’s easier said than done. Tunisia are just one place below England in the FIFA rankings and if you’re thinking Panama will be a soft touch, cast your mind back to the European Championships two years ago and the humiliating defeat and elimination by lowly Iceland.
I can at least offer one crumb of comfort.
However England fares it will have done better than four-time winners Italy and three-time finalists Holland. Both will be absent from Russia 2018.