Matthew Monk is a school teacher
from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
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Fighting like cornered lions
In 1992 England reached the World Cup Final. They
played superbly throughout the tournament, winning
almost every game they played - only once when they
fielded a shadow side in a meaningless game did they
lose. They were red-hot favourites for the final,
especially as they had demolished their opponents in
the earlier group stage. This was going to be it,
victory at long, long last.
You think I have gone completely mad now don't you?
1992, do you mean the European Championships? What am
I talking about? This really did happen, and of
course in the final England could not see it through
and were thoroughly beaten. It was the 1992 Cricket
World Cup Final, a minor event in the eyes of
three-quarters of the world, but a very big deal in
this country desperate for sporting success.
England lost that final to Pakistan, even though they
had clearly been the best team all through that
Southern Hemisphere summer. They beat - thrashed -
mighty Australia and the West Indies. Against
Pakistan in the first round only rain stopped a
sporting massacre that would have knocked the eventual
winners out. Yet they were completely outplayed by
the same team just weeks later.
England lost the match before they went out onto the
field. They were beaten psychologically; believing in
their own hype to such an extent that they never even
thought the game would be a contest. Opposing them
was Imran Khan, a legendary all-rounder and master
strategist, who inspired his team simply. He told
them to fight constantly, to never give in, to refuse
to accept that these Englishmen were superior. They
were being penned in by their opponents, they were
cornered tigers he said, and they needed to fight like
that - just as they had done so often in the past.
Believing they were unbeatable, Wasim Akram, Waqar
Younis and the rest of the team went out, and blew
Why am I telling you all this? Because the situation
has now been reversed on England. It is now the
English that are the underdogs, the English that are
the cornered tigers. And it is Argentina that are the
opponents this time - in a football match, this Friday
England are in the same situation Pakistan found
themselves in 10 years ago. They have played badly,
stumbling through a series of poor friendlies and only
just escaped Saitama with a point last Sunday. They
are now up against a team most of the world expects
them to lose to. And it is exactly where they want to
England revels in being the underdog. It suits our
modest psyche perfectly. We don't like to be seen
boasting, regardless of what our drunken football fans
shout out across the world. We might agree with what
they are saying, but it is not quite British to
actually say it. So it is no good for us to be
favourites, we don't like it, it makes us
uncomfortable. But when we are underdogs we can
celebrate in how plucky, courageous and brave we will
have to be. The war analogies can come out - the
Dunkirk Spirit, standing alone during the Battle of
Britain, Churchill's stirring speeches: you know the
type of thing. If we win then it shows just how good
we are really. And if we lose, then we can always
remind the world we were underdogs anyway.
This is what the nation has been trying to do since
Sunday. The stories about how good Veron is in
international games (as opposed to his terrible
domestic form for Manchester United) have resurfaced.
Batistuta is being talked up as the best striker in
the world once again (forgetting that he could not hit
a barn door in a Roma shirt last season). 'Look at
the bench' scream the newspaper stories - Aimar,
Crespo, Ayala, Lopez - 'how can we win?' Don't
believe the hype.
Sven Goran Eriksson is a believer: he thinks he is
going to lose this game about as much as he thinks
China will win the World Cup. England are never going
to thrash Argentina, but then they don't have to do
that. 1:0 will do, just as it would have done against
Sweden. That is all Eriksson wants, and he will be
more than happy with that. England will still be in
with a chance of qualification even with a draw, but a
victory would almost guarantee progression. Having to
rely on Argentina beating Sweden - especially as
France are likely to finish second in Group A and meet
the winners of this group - is too much of a risk to
It is incredibly doubtful that Argentina would
deliberately allow Sweden to win, just as it is
unlikely that both Sweden and England will brush aside
Nigeria at a stroke. But there is a chance.
Therefore England must have destiny in their own hands
when they meet Nigeria. And that means beating
This is not impossible. I have written many times
that the two sides are very close, much closer than
many commentators see it. The game in St Etienne in
1998 was a genuine draw between two closely matched
teams - even after Beckham was sent off. England
should have won the game, but than again an
Argentinian fan would argue they should have. A
friendly at Wembley two years ago told much the same
story, although England seemed even better that cold
night. But on a warm, humid night in Japan?
Well here is a bit of a misnomer. England and
Argentina play in northern Japan, in a climate
controlled domed stadium. There will be no raging
humidity, or blinding sun. It will be quite similar
to playing at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Sapporo has hosted the Winter Olympics before - it is
not exactly Gwangju where the humidity literally
steamed away under the floodlights during the
Spain/Slovenia game. So that evens out the weather
Both sides have small injury problems - Ayala for
Argentina, Beckham and Dyer for England - but neither
is as serious as it could be. In fact both teams
could be fielding full strength sides, which points to
it being an even tighter match. It will come down to
tactics, and which coach gets it right. Bielsa will
probably play a similar team and style to that he
picked against Nigeria - nothing surprising there.
Eriksson has much bigger changes to make.
England cannot play in the same way that they did
against Sweden, especially as that meant pointlessly
smashing long balls towards Michael Owen and Darius
Vassell. Calls for Teddy Sheringham to be brought
into the team - at the expense of Heskey or Vassell or
both - ring out loud and clear, but that is not likely
to be Eriksson's plan. Once Heskey was moved into the
centre against Sweden he looked much more potent, but
as time was running out (and Sweden were firmly on
top) he managed one solitary shot, and little else.
The idea of playing him on the left came from the 2000
friendly between the two teams when he ran Nestor
Sensini ragged. But Sensini was no Samuel, Ayala or
even a Placente - it is doubtful Heskey would be as
effective playing wide this time.
I believe that Eriksson will go with Heskey and Owen
up front - I would do that for what it is worth - and
that he will look to strengthen the midfield
accordingly. Kieron Dyer could replace Heskey one for
one on the left, but he was so ineffectual against
Sweden that Eriksson may not risk it. Instead expect
to see Nicky Butt brought in to the centre of midfield
to partner Scholes and Hargreaves. Hargreaves was
another player seemingly caught out by the additional
pressure and nature of competitive international
football, but he is an Eriksson favourite, and may be
the best that is available. That makes for a strong,
combative midfield. I just fear it may not be one
capable of supplying Owen and Heskey. It won't be
overrun, but will it create chances?
Of course Owen only needs one chance, as does Beckham.
They will get at least one chance, but so will Veron,
Ortega and Gonzalez. It will be a tight game. Then
again it was always going to be that way.
The wild optimism of the English before we played
Sweden may have been tempered a little bit, but the
country does still truly believe it will win. England
are still seen as possible, even probable, champions.
Eriksson is trusted like no coach since Terry Venables
(and few before him). He is either going to get it
all right, and be a hero, or fail and be in big
But if England follow the example of Pakistan, and
start to fight like cornered tigers - or cornered
lions - then things might be a bit more interesting.
England can win, if they believe it.
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