Saturday 21 July 2018

Ewan MacKenna: You have to actually be good to win a World Cup - and that's where mediocre England fall way short

England players celebrate after beating Colombia on penalties
England players celebrate after beating Colombia on penalties
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

Before their team kicked a ball at this World Cup, the BBC had managed to set a fair old chunk of the tone. Their introductory video ahead of their opener skipped forward to 15 July, and imagined that England had won the lot of it. There was Gary Lineker and Harry Kane and Theresa May and Alan Shearer, and it would all have been a bit of fun if only we didn't know the neighbours so well.

But we do.

Shortly after that promo they went out and floundered against Tunisia, yet a last-minute winner somehow didn't change the tone. Despite beating on a pub team from Panama, it was used as a reaffirmation of their chances. When losing to Belgium's reserves, the draw it handed them rather than the result was what was taken with them. And it was no different when the performance against Colombia should have alarmed a lot more than even those penalties soothed.

Bit by bit they've have started to think this actually might happen. We'll have to stop them there though.

Make no mistake, that BBC promo remains every bit as delusional now as it did two-and-a-half-weeks ago, even if others have since been buying into the hype. Yesterday's Guardian for instance, that last outpost for some semblance of level-headedness, even ran with a headline of "Yes we can". But while getting over Colombia may have meant one fewer hurdle to trip up, it also served as proof as to why they won't win it out. At some point, no matter the luck, you have to actually be good.

Plain and simple, this England is functional and little more. It has one world-class player in Harry Kane, a middle of magicians solely due to their ability to disappear, and a back three that won't be guarded against the best, what with John Stones' yang to yin, and Harry Maguire out of position.

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Sure, it has helped that this tournament has been split down the middle, with the top half like a theatre of fine art containing Shakespeare plays and Bach music in the midst of Dali's hanging on the wall, and the bottom half a dirty hall with a bearded lady and a guy hammering nails up his nose and something grotesque in a jar. However all that does is delay the inevitable to the point you couldn't walk on more solid ground when saying Friday's games are basically the semis.

That's not to say they won't go still further, but champions? If they were to make a final for instance - and that's looking way too far down the line given Sweden would be talked about as tactical geniuses and defensive masterminds if their name was Italy - then only Sweden 1958 and Germany 2002 would have been worse teams in a decider. Think about how they got on.

And remember, it's all good talking about a puncher's chance, but you've to be a puncher first.

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Colombia’s Juan Cuadrado (left) questions a decision with referee Mark Geiger. (Adam Davy/PA)

There are those who lazily conflate truth with negativity or some claim of anti-English sentiment, but let us step back and look at the actual happenings in the second round. In terms of Colombia, we got garbage on top of garbage. James Rodriguez's injury saw too much change as they went ultra-defensive. Juan Cuadrado looked an old man at 30, Juan Quintero regressed to the point we are again talking about untapped potential, meanwhile Jose Peckerman's needless tactical retreat saw Radamel Falcao lead the line in isolation from outside the opposition penalty area.

It was one of the worst performances of the tournament as they couldn't pass for most of the 90 minutes. At times some of them could well have been sectioned such was their mental breakdown, and only when Fernando Uribe and his boundless energy and enthusiasm entered did they finally look a little like the side that had gone before. If we overstated what they could do though, don't think that means we understated what England are about for we got exactly what they say on the tin. In essence, out and out mediocrity.

Kieran Trippier was excellent for the most part, and they were the more controlled side that were helped in their pressing by the South Americans. But after that? Did they have a shot on target outside the penalty in normal time? Did they have a clear-cut chance during that 90 minutes? They didn't get the job done when Colombia did a lot of it for them, and were on the ropes thereafter.

Yet there are those who think this was justification of a lead-up laced with bizarre and misplaced arrogance. The Mirror wrote after the Belgium defeat, 'This Way To The Final' but other more reasonable voices were equally dismissive of what lay in front of them. ITV's post-group analysis didn't once mention Colombia, while no less an analyst than Gary Neville was talking instantly about a semi-final. Forget three lions, this had all resulted in a 12 Monkeys-style madness.

And we are bitter for pointing this out?

And we are begrudging for pointing this out?

And we are anti-English for pointing this out?

It might go against the high tide of jingoism, but ultimately it's the reality.

 

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Maybe the BBC promo video was fun and funny. In fact if it was anyone else, it would have been.

There was a Gary Cahill haircut in a barbers, Raheem Sterling on the front of a 10-pound note (get it), Danny Dyer on a rant about 1966 and West Ham, and Ian Broudie struggling hopelessly with a new tune. Sadly with England though there's always an unpleasant emotional side they drag you into no matter how hard you fight it. You are merely the fly, and they know how to weave a web.

Take the clip that emerged of Alan Shearer on Tuesday's Match of the Day before cameras came back to the studio.

It was the mask slipping, giving us an ugly view of what hides behind the jokes.

"We don't even care," he spat. "Run it however way you want and we'll just talk about it. Who gives a shit? We'll just smile and be happy and say well done lads, Colombia you cheating, robbing... fucking."

We know standards have slipped at the Beeb of late, ever since their Olympic TV team couldn't ask questions, never mind provide answers, such was their schedule for selfies with their heroes in both 2012 and 2016. Yet that Tuesday studio lapping up his tirade came across like an old-empire ignorance, as if waltzing around Kenya in a pith helmet barking orders at locals.

If that was the high-end of the scale it slithered all the way down. In a smarmy and slimy apology, the sort that you'd expect from The Sun, they wrote: "The front page of yesterday's Sun may have given the impression that Colombia is well known for its cocaine trade. This was unfair on the Colombian people, who are far more embarrassed by the way their cheating, fouling, play-acting, mean-spirited national football team played last night. We are happy to set the record straight."

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Harry Maguire was singled out for praise following his performance against Colombia on Tuesday night. (Adam Davy/PA)

Worse than any waft of xenophobia though was that all their claims were based on a falsity. Referee Mark Geiger was abysmal and Wilmar Barios should have seen red but how often have you gotten the full story? There's been precious little mention of Stones' boot that caught Falcao's head, of Maguire's appalling dive for a penalty, of Raheem Sterling making too much of Yerry Mina's tackle, of Ashley Young winning a free in extra-time for what could have seen him sent off, of a late goal-kick given to the victors when the ball clearly came off Eric Dier's head.

Still, what do details matter when at times this came across as if some BNP loon in a bar getting red-faced by using stereotypes to have a go at foreigners. That's not about the team as such, but as the old Jerry Seinfeld joke went, given how players move on anyway what you are essentially supporting or are turned off by is an item of clothing. It represents far more than just those on the pitch.

In such spheres, thinking you're better than you are can merely be about optimism and hope and we do it worse than most via our rugby. What isn't excusable is the nastiness that comes with it in English football, a pompous presumption reinforced by a strong nationalist seam. It's not most of their fans, or even many, but the stench from the few is so strong it overwhelms all.

Back in Ireland in the face of this, there's a sanctimony coming from some that are cheering them on. If you do, good for you, and we know that there's a connection via friends and family more so than anywhere else, and there's also a commonality of culture. But what has that got to do with it? That would suggest logic when sport is built on tribalism and rivalries through what's local.

Instead, those who force that nonsense with a message of growing up just reek of smugness. They want to use sport to show you how they've matured as a person and you should too, as if this was ever about 800 years or No Surrender or 10 German bombers. That might have an ingrained effect in the Irish psyche but there's plenty to dislike about this bandwagon right here and now.

It's why after the shoot-out, what had gone before and what inevitably has followed brought Emily Dickinson to mind.

"I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, And Mourners to and fro, Kept treading - treading - till it seemed That Sense was breaking through."

That sense will break through soon and there'll come a point at this tournament that emotion around their attitude and objectivity around their ability meet up.

The pride has cometh, not that it ever stopped.

Next is that inevitable fall.

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