Where are the scads of St George flags fluttering like English hearts from windows and white vans and honky-tonk pubs? The plastic red and white Droog hats? The headlines suggesting that England can win the World Cup? So far they are as sporadic as the nation’s belief in Roy Hodgson’s side.
True, it is about time that hysteria gave way to realpolitik. But the bookies chalk up England at 28-1 to lift the trophy, a 3.45% chance, and only third favourites to escape Group D. Never before have they been so unfancied. Even Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland were 16-1 to win USA 94.
Yet this unwavering England-sceptic, who distrusts their technique and temperament and recoils at the hype every unimpressive victory generates, wonders whether they are being dismissed too readily. The quarter-finals is a par score for England at World Cups: in their past six tournaments they have reached that stage four times. Why should this time, more than any other time, be any different?
Hodgson’s zesty young squad is not noticeably worse than other recent vintages. Compared with some – 2010, for instance – it is arguably better. And while expectations are low, it is no different from the last time England played a World Cup in the Americas, in Mexico 86, when the Guardian’s David Lacey warned they faced “a demanding tournament in alien conditions with a squad whose talent is thinly spread”.
And according to Fifa’s rankings – admittedly not the firmest foundation for any argument – England’s level has been steady too. They were 12th in 2002, 10th in 2006, 8th in 2010 and 10th now. Hodgson’s England are not that dissimilar to Sven-Goran Eriksson’s and Fabio Capello’s England.
Not everyone will buy that after Saturday night’s fractious and fractured 0-0 draw against Honduras, especially as England’s passing often had the hesitancy of someone speaking a second language. But the odd poor friendly performance before a World Cup is not necessarily indicative. In the build-up to Italia 90 England lost 2-1 to Uruguay and drew 1-1 with Tunisia. They reached the semi-finals. Four years ago England defeated Egypt, Japan and Mexico in the run-up to South Africa, then stank the place out.
Yes, there are reasonable fears about how England will cope with the heat and humidity. But World Cups tend to be tough, whether in Monterrey or Munich or Manaus. In Mexico 86 a staggering 35 of the 52 matches kicked off at midday for European TV audiences, with England’s opener against Portugal starting in temperatures of over 40C with 80% humidity.
What is different this time, of course, is the supposed difficulty of the opposition. But Uruguay finished fifth in South American qualifying and have question marks over the fitness of Luis Suárez and their defence, while Italy have gone seven games without a win despite facing Luxembourg, Armenia and Nigeria. They are good teams, sure. But we should not turn them into Godzillas.
Inevitably the next few days will be largely about England’s team to face Italy. To stick or twist. To trust established class or current form. The indications are that Hodgson may play the side he started against Peru and Honduras, keeping Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley in reserve to stretch tiring legs. But there are inherent risks about turning football into a 30-minute game – especially if you have to chase against a packed defence.
There is another reason why Hodgson should be bold. If England have low-scoring draws against Italy and Uruguay they will be in a dangerous position if Costa Rica lose their first two games. Death by tiebreaker is not impossible. Remember Italy in Euro 2004?
At the start of World Cups England managers tend to stay loyal to those who got them there. That is understandable. But how many times have inexperienced but in-form players seized the day when given the chance? One thinks of Peter Beardsley, who was called a “little star” by Bobby Robson after England thumped Mexico in a warm-up in 1986 but did not start until the final group game against Poland. It took an achilles tendon problem to Bryan Robson before England turned to David Platt in 1990. And Michael Owen and David Beckham started on the bench in France 98.
And remember: Gary Lineker went to Mexico 86 with 13 caps and Beardsley had five caps. Before Italia 90 Paul Gascoigne had 11 caps and David Platt five. Before France 98 Beckham had played 15 internationals and Owen five. A 21-year-old Ashley Cole started the 2002 World Cup in a team whose outfielders had an average age of 23.8.
But while Hodgson’s politics are left of centre he is a football conservative. He has shown signs of changing by picking Daniel Sturridge to lead the line instead of Wayne Rooney but he needs to be bolder still. Sterling, whom Hodgson calls “a very useful cog”, should be a central wheel. The brief glimpses of Barkley, a revved-up dragster racer itching to show what he can do, suggests he makes England play faster and better.
Hodgson is 66 so this is likely to be his last World Cup, whatever happens in Brazil. He should not leave himself any regrets. Incidentally, before Mexico 86 Lacey wrote that “given a bit of luck England ought to confound the pessimists and do rather well”. That applies as much today as it did then.