Friday, 23 May 2014

World Cup Wishlist

Now with the World Cup barely a few weeks away there is a growing excitement building towards the competition.  Expectations for England have been quite measured, with many believing qualification past the Group stage, a success.

This is my own personal take on this as there is really only one thing I want from the World Cup.  I just want one moment of magic to take away with me.  One instance we can look back on in years to come and talk about.  I actually think a last eight finish is an achievement.  Qualification was a struggle at times, but ultimately the performances in the final two matches were some of the best we’ve witnessed since well before the last World Cup.  Roy Hodgson has selected a young squad with some exciting talent, eager to show their ability to a watching global audience.

On the subject of the last World Cup, I have witnessed England in seven World Cups and I have to say that was the worst.  There was nothing to cheer about.  I suppose the highlight was Steven Gerrard’s early goal against United States but the team never kicked on from there and each game became a completely excruciating experience.

What I would really like is for England to beat a decent side in the knock-out stages.  When I think back to all the international tournaments I have watched since my first in 1978, England has competed in 7 out of 9 World Cups (including 1978) and always made it past the group stage.  But in just 3 of those 7 tournaments have they won a further match afterwards.  In the European Championships it’s even worse with an identical 7 out of 9 tournaments competed in yet only making it past the group stage on just 3 occasions.  Of those three occasions England has only won one match in the knock-out stages of the European Championships when they beat Spain at Wembley during Euro ’96.

That win over Spain was against a side who had the potential to make it to the Final.  In 2002 Denmark won their group and represented a tricky opponent which England swept aside fairly comfortably.  These two matches are the only wins in a knock-out stage England have managed since 1982, against sides which could be expected to beat them.  England, unseeded for the World Cup this time, and drawn into a group with a Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica.  It will be a challenge, but if they finish in the top two this increases the chances of drawing a big team in the knock-out stages.  This is where I hope to find my ‘moment’.

I believe every country goes into a World Cup looking for their ‘moment’.  One moment of magic, a goal, a performance, even a victory where you can look back in years to come be proud of your country.  Here are some of the ‘moments’ I have enjoyed down the years.


England took their bow on day three of the tournament, against France in Bilbao.  The match kicked off at 4.15pm, and it usually took me 15 minutes to get home from school.  I got back two minutes into the game and England were already a goal up.  England’s preparations for the tournament had been put into disarray when both Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking were injured for the opening game.  During qualification they had played some of their best football when both were on the pitch, but now had to navigate the group stage without either of them.  Right from the kick-off Trevor Francis knocked the ball back to Ray Wilkins in the centre circle and he waited for Steve Coppell to burst forward down the right, he played the ball ahead of him but Coppell was denied room to cross by Bossis, who knocked the ball out for a throw.  This was clearly something England had been working on in training as Terry Butcher came up from the back to take his place on the near post.  Coppell took the throw and Butcher flicked it on as the French defence were more concerned with defending the throw than marking anyone.  Butcher’s flick was the cue for Bryan Robson to arrive, unmarked, in the six yard box and he knocked the ball past Ettori for a stunning start.  27 seconds were on the watch when the ball went in to break the record for the fastest goal in World Cup history.

England went onto win the game 3-1 against a French team consisting of Platini, Giresse, Tigana and many who would go onto to lift the European Championship two years later.  That was really as good as it got for England during that World Cup, though they were never beaten they always lacked the firepower which could’ve seen them reach the Semi-Finals.  But they had achieved something to be remembered for many years to come with Robson’s record-breaking goal.


This World Cup started disastrously for England and after defeat to Portugal and a miserable goalless draw with Morocco they faced a ‘must-win’ match with Poland where once again a draw would not be enough.  With Robson injured and Wilkins suspended, Bobby Robson was forced into changes and he also realised Peter Beardsley was a much better partner for Gary Lineker than Mark Hateley.  During an age when hyperbole was an unknown quantity, this was definitely a massive game for England.  9 minutes in and Hoddle played a long ball forward from near his own area to find Lineker on the halfway line, and he nodded the ball square to Beardsley who then played it back to Lineker and England were away.  As Lineker surged towards the Polish area he then looked to his right and found Trevor Steven on the edge of the ‘D’.  This was the cue for right-back Gary Stevens to join the attack and he played the ball into the 6-yard area when Lineker had carried on his run, anticipating a pass, and the Everton striker knocked the ball into the roof of the net and England had an ideal start.  189 minutes into the World Cup and England had finally found the net.  5 minutes later and England built from the back as Sansom played a ball forward to where Beardsley came deep, and his brilliant first time pass sent Hodge away on his own down the left wing.  Hodge played a dangerous cross into the 6-yard box and again there was Lineker to get to it first and as it hit the back of the net the roar from the England fans at home must’ve matched those in the ground.  These were two goals which came to sum-up Lineker as he challenged his colleagues simply to put the ball into the right areas and he’d do the rest.  His commitment and anticipation were what made him stand out as one of England’s finest goalscorers. 

England now found themselves two goals to the good and daring to think the unthinkable.  Twenty minutes later and England had a corner on the left which Steven floated into the 6-yard box where Mlynarczyk, the Polish keeper, misjudged the flight and missed the ball.  It landed for Lineker, who controlled the ball off his chest and hit it left-footed on the half-volley again into the roof of the net.  35 minutes into the game, Lineker had a hat-trick, England were 3-0 up and now their passage into the next round was assured.  It was a terrific return to form and suddenly there was optimism around the country.  Another comfortable win in the Second Round against Paraguay lead to a battle with Argentina for a place in the last four.  We all know what happened next as both the ‘sinner and saint’ parts of Diego Maradona’s personality were on show denying England further progress.

But we had that near-perfect first 35 minutes from England and Lineker to hold dear for many a year.


Much of the football in the early stages from England mirrored much of the football from the rest of sides as the 1990 contained some of the worst football ever witnessed on the international stage.  But England unearthed a real gem.  Paul Gascoigne was the rising star of English football and manager Bobby Robson was under increasing pressure to let him loose in the full side.  Robson had given Gascoigne his first cap as a substitute against Denmark in September 1988.  By the time of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Gascoigne had appeared 11 times for his country, scoring twice, and started in each of the four games leading up to the competition.  He was the most exciting young talent seen in this country for a while.  The football may have been poor but Gascoigne was easily the shining star and ended up one of the most talked about footballers to emerge from a World Cup.  Think back to Pele in 1958, Maradona in 1982 and now England had one of their own.  Gascoigne could infuriate managers as he would often play the game as he saw it rather than the way they wanted, but fans loved him.  Of the three main types of midfield player, the tackler, the passer and the runner, Gascoigne was at his most exciting with the ball at his feet, dribbling past players and creating space and chances for others.  There were times when the chances he created were simply too good for the players he played with.

During the early group games against Republic of Ireland and Netherlands we were privileged to bear witness to some of his precocious talent and two particular moves stood out as typical of the player.  In the first half unmarked he picks up the ball in the centre-circle and immediately makes his way forward towards the Dutch goal.  Koeman is first to challenge and he skips past him with ease.  Witschge appears from his right but Gascoigne puts his arm up and then when the Dutchman tries to push him off the ball, he just bounces off in the opposite direction, all the time retaining possession.  This takes him past van Tiggelen who, like Koeman, goes to ground, but Gascoigne’s progress is finally halted by Rijkaard.  It was similar to a run he attempted against the Irish which ended in a stern challenge as if to emphasise the only way to stop this kid was to resort to strong-arm tactics.

In the second half Gascoigne ran into the Dutch penalty area and received the ball wide on the right.  Koeman again went to challenge him and seemed to have curtailed his progress as help came in the shape of van Tiggelen.  Gascoigne seemed to be trapped down near the bye-line but he suddenly produced a beautiful bit of skill with his right heel to knock the ball behind his left foot, turn and leave the two Dutch defenders floundering in a move to rival the legendary “Cruyff-turn”.  As if that wasn’t enough his ball in was somehow missed by Lineker at the far post, denying Gascoigne eternal World Cup glory having played an integral part in a crucial goal.  In the next game against Egypt he again beat several players as he toyed with them moving the ball from left foot to right whilst keeping perfect balance.  At one point he was able to showcase his ‘turn’ again in a tight space to take out three Egyptian defenders.  It was Gascoigne who produced the free-kick into the area which Mark Wright climbed to head England’s only goal of the game.

Gascoigne was more than just a brilliant player.  He was a big personality, as nutty as a fruitcake, as daft as a brush and capable of almost anything.  In the Second Round against Belgium as penalties seemed inevitable, Gascoigne was given the ball midway into his own half.  He feinted to play a pass with his right foot, turning onto his left to take out one player and then he was away and clear.  As he was challenged from his left he invited the tackle which lead to a free-kick.  As if he’d planned the whole move, Gascoigne took the kick himself and floated the ball into the area where David Platt’s volley won the game.  In the Quarter-Final against Cameroon, England were 1-2 down coming into the final 5 minutes when Gascoigne again took it upon himself to change things.  Once again running from midfield he waited for Lineker to make his run and found him with a good through ball and Lineker was able to tempt the keeper into a challenge which ultimately lead to the penalty Lineker equalised from.

Gascoigne was prompting praise from all areas and not just English.  Franz Beckenbauer claimed he would sign him if he was president of a club and Gascoigne almost won the Semi-Final against Germany, which he was ultimately remembered for his tears once realising a yellow card denied his availability for the Final.  As it was, England’s failure during the shootout rendered this an irrelevance but he had melted everyone’s hearts.  His World Cup performance resulted in a big money move to Lazio the following summer but the next two England managers would make sure this was his one and only World Cup.


If Gascoigne was the young star of Italia ’90 then Michael Owen was undoubtedly his equivalent in France ’98.  England manager, Glenn Hoddle, appeared reluctant to give the 18 year old his head too soon.  Given a starting place against Chile and Switzerland in early 1998 he scored his first goal coming on as a substitute against Morocco in May to become England’s youngest goalscorer.  He was on the bench for the opening game against Tunisia but within 7 minutes of his replacement of Teddy Sheringham against Romania, he had equalised.  This earned him a starting place in the next match against Colombia which England won, but it was his performance in the Second Round match against Argentina which had everyone talking.  Had England managed to hold onto a draw against Romania they would’ve met Croatia in the Second Round, but as it was they were up against their arch rivals Argentina in a classic encounter which was possibly the game of the tournament.  Both teams had traded penalties in the opening 10 minutes as the game began at a frantic pace.  The move began as Ince dispossessed Lopez just outside England’s area and immediately fed it forward to David Beckham.  Beckham looked up and found Owen in space in the centre-circle, and clipped the ball to him.  Owen’s first touch took the ball just beyond the nearest Argentine challenge and he was away.  The defender, Chamot, managed to stay with the pace of Owen but didn’t count on the youngster’s determination to hold him off.  As Owen moved towards the area, Roberto Ayala, positioned in the ‘D’, was ready to pounce but Owen’s pace was too hot as he dropped his left shoulder, moved to his right to allow himself space for a shot.  Owen was now 15 yards out and finished beautifully into the top left-hand corner of the Argentine net for a truly memorable goal.  England now lead 2-1 and their teenage sensation had announced himself on the world stage.

My abiding memory of that moment is from Brian Moore’s commentary.  Moore, an ITV commentator is some repute, had been commentating on football since I can remember and had seen players of the like of Greaves, Best, Charlton, Dalglish, Keegan, Rush and Trevor Brooking and yet here he was virtually in raptures at the breathtaking run by a completely unflappable and innocent kid who seemed unconcerned at the glare he was under from the whole planet.

“Beckham now to Owen, and here’s another Owen run and he’s gonna worry them again.  It’s a great run from Michael Owen and he might finish it off …..ohhhhh what a wonderful goal from Michael Owen”.

My second favourite memory of that goal is the reaction amongst the England subs, particularly Paul Merson, who cannot believe what they’ve just seen.  Ultimately the game was to end in disappointment with a sending off for Beckham and failure at the dreaded penalty shootout, but at least we had Michael Owen to cling onto.


England embarked on their first World Cup under a non-English manager as Sven-Goran Eriksson lead them to Japan and South Korea.  England had taken a first half lead in their opening game against Sweden only to end up with a point. This then lead to the big clash against Argentina.  The two had only met once since the St. Etienne game, in a friendly in 2000, and this game was billed as a heavyweight clash.  Argentina had won their opening match against Nigeria and knew another win would guarantee progress to the knockout stage.  Ever since the draw was made the previous November, the game was set-up as a Beckham v Simeone clash.  Diego Simeone was enemy No. 1 amongst many England fans for what they saw as his goading of Beckham to get the Manchester United player sent off in France four years before.  It was also another chance for the Argentine defence to get to grips with Michael Owen, and the Liverpool forward made his presence felt early on as his strong run had the defence back-peddling but his shot hit the post and was cleared.

As half-time approached England attacked down the left and the ball eventually found Owen just inside the area.  He took on Mauricio Pochettino, who stuck out his left leg and down went Owen for a penalty kick.  Cue David Beckham.  Interestingly enough Simeone tried to put him off by walking in front of him and wishing him well as he was waiting to take the kick.  England held its breath as Beckham stepped up and fired the ball straight down the middle and England were in front.  Beckham had endured some of the most fearful abuse and criticism after France ’98 as some seeked to blame England’s defeat purely at his feet.  Being David Beckham meant there are some who still haven’t forgiven him, but to get a spot-kick against Argentina where it seemed to be him against, not only the Argentine nation but also his own, he proved he was big enough to carry the weight of expectation and England had pulled off a famous win.

Once qualified, England treated the nation to another performance similar to the Poland game in Mexico ’86 with an almost perfect first half against Denmark.  Four minutes into the game and Laursen had mis-directed a header out for a corner, which Beckham floated to the far post.  Goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen, then of Sunderland, misjudged the flight and Rio Ferdinand, one of the players of the tournament, rose highest at the back post to head the ball back to the keeper who juggled with it and his backward momentum took the ball back over the line.  After 22 minutes England attacked with real purpose again as Butt found Sinclair wide on the left.  He cut inside and played the ball along the ground into the area where Butt knocked it forward and suddenly Owen found himself free and his left foot shot wrong-footed the keeper and England were 2 goals to the good.  Half-time beckoned as England had a throw in on the right which Danny Mills took and another poor Danish header allowed Beckham to play it inside for Emile Heskey, just inside the ‘D’.  Heskey, with little backlift, jabbed the ball from side on and his shot contained enough power to surprise Sorensen and England were now 3-0 up.

It was champagne football reminiscent of the fare they had served up against Germany in the qualifiers and many were pinching themselves to believe England could go all the way.  As it was Brazil were just too streetwise in the Quarter-Finals and England progressed no further, but at least we had revenge against Argentina and the Danish demolition to hold onto.


England had qualified for the World Cup in Germany by virtue of beating Poland in their final qualifying game to top their group.  Still under the tutelage of Eriksson they beat Paraguay and Trinidad before they met Sweden.  Sweden were somewhat of a bogey side for England as it was 38 years and 11 encounters since they had last beaten them.  With Sweden failing to beat Trinidad they knew a draw would be the minimum they’d need.  England’s form in the opening two matches had been patchy and disjointed despite two wins and no goals conceded.  England had an early blow when Michael Owen crawled off the pitch in the opening minutes after damaging a knee attempting a 5-yard pass.

Thirty five minutes in and no goals, which suited both teams, but then as England attacked down the right Beckham crossed to the far post where Crouch, not known for his heading prowess, headed the ball back across the goal.  Linderoth had tracked Lampard back and beat the Chelsea man to the ball and Sweden seemed to have dealt with the danger comfortably.  But the ball was headed out to Joe Cole who was standing about 35 yards out from the goal, completely on his own.  The ball came to him and he controlled it on his chest, as the whole Swedish defence launched their own version of the charge of the light brigade towards him.  Cole’s chest control allowed the ball to bob up and slightly to his right and he met it sweetly on the volley and cut across it to give the ball enough fade, which meant it hit the inside of the upright and went in.  Isaksson in the Swedish goal had plenty of time to see it but was helpless to reach it and England had the lead and one of the goals of the tournament. 

As a 20-year old, Joe Cole had been selected for the previous World Cup but played no part.  As a child prodigy much was expected of him yet we were still waiting for him to reach his true potential despite a move to Chelsea.  Was this his coming of age?  Few of us cared at the time as he’d scored the sort of goal that if he’d been wearing a Brazilian shirt, would’ve been shown on televisions throughout the planet.  Sweden equalised but then Cole was again the instigator as he provided the cross for Steven Gerrard to head in at the far post and he looked to have won the game with 5 minutes to go.  But just as with Romania in 1998 or Sweden in 2002, England were unable to see the game out and Henrik Larsson’s last minute goal denied them a perfect record from the group matches.  After seeing off Ecuador in the Second Round England again faltered at the penalty shootout hurdle against Portugal in the Quarter-Finals as a match-up with either France or Brazil beckoned.

Ultimately, we were left with that sense of what might have been but at least we had Cole’s goal to remember.


As I said earlier there was nothing about this tournament to hold onto.  Steven Gerrard gave England an early lead in their first match against USA with a good move and it looked like we were on our way, but that was as good as it got.  It comes to something when, for some people, the abiding memory is of a disallowed goal as Frank Lampard’s ‘equaliser’ against Germany was not given.

As I mentioned earlier I am under no illusion we can win the competition, we simply do not possess enough match-winning players, but we can compete enough to make the last eight and I would just like one moment of magic to take away with me.

England’s World Cup Record Since 1978

1978 – Did not qualify
1982 – Won their group. Second phase was another group stage with two other teams.  Two goalless draws against Germany and Spain saw England eliminated.
1986 – Finished second in their group.  Beat Paraguay 3-0 in the Second Round and then lost 1-2 to Argentina in the Quarter-Finals.
1990 – Won their group.  Beat Belgium, 1-0, in the Second Round and Cameroon, 3-2, in the Quarter-Finals, but lost to Germany on penalties in the Semi-Finals.
1994 – Did not qualify
1998 – Finished second in their group.  Lost to Argentina in the Second Round on penalties
2002 – Finished second in their group.  Beat Denmark, 3-0, in the Second Round but lost 1-2 to Brazil in the Quarter-Finals.
2006 – Won their group.  Beat Ecuador, 1-0, in the Second Round and then lost on penalties to Portugal.
2010 – Finished second in their group.  Beaten 1-4 by Germany in the Second Round.

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