Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Playing Against The Past

    When Michael Owen glanced in an injury time headed goal against Argentina recently the nation of England quite literally went mad. This, you see, was confirmation. One of the best teams in the world had been defeated, and we all knew what this meant. No need to whisper it anymore – England can win the World Cup.

    This may meet with sneering in some quarters, but the optimism has genuine foundation. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry have been recognised in various FIFA awards and polls as some of the most outstanding players currently operating in Europe, Michael Owen is a former Ballon D’Or winner and David Beckham has had umpteen nominations. There’s also a kid called Wayne Rooney some of you may have heard of. In all, there are reasons to be cheerful if you are English.

    Can they do it though? Can they really? For those heavily dosed up on triumphalism off the back of a victory in a friendly, I would like to add a word of caution…well four words actually. They are Brazil, Italy, Germany and the aforementioned Argentina. Ever since England won its one and only international competition in 1966, crossing paths with any of these giants of world football has almost always meant elimination. With depressing regularity, the big four have taken it in turns to bounce England out of the World Cup or European Championships.

    The big four have won thirteen of the seventeen World Cups so far, and have all managed to score victories without the comforting advantage of home soil. Of the other winners England and France could triumph only at home, and although Uruguay famously stunned a packed Maracana to take the trophy in 1950, they have long since faded as a world power, reaching only one of the last four tournaments. The four big guns have had a presence in every single World Cup final. In fact, though the game is expanding globally, their grip is tightening. Two of their number have contested every final since 1982, the only exception being the French triumph over Brazil in Paris in 1998.

    And this is part of England’s problem – we do see ourselves as a world power. The inventors of the game, going down fighting in every game, seething against the injustice of penalties and hands (not to mention feet) of god. We deserve to be bracketed with the Italians, the Germans, the Argentineans and the Brazilians. The reality? We have contested as many international tournament finals as Denmark and Greece. Even if we do make the final next year, that brings us only level with Hungary and Spain. We will still lag behind the Dutch and, if you will permit me some clumsy geography, the Czechs.

    And the reason we can’t add to our mighty haul of one trophy is because every time we meet one of the big four nations in competitive play we’re put on a one way back to Heathrow quicker than we can blink. I will use 1966 as the starting point for the following exercise, which details the full horror of our recent international history. It is also probably worth pointing out that when England did come out on top in 1966 they did actually beat Argentina and West Germany en route. The Argentina quarter-final was marred by the ludicrous sending off of Antonio Rattin, who made the international finger-rubbing gesture for ‘this game is rigged’ at the England bench, whereas West Germany were defeated in the final with one extra-time goal that didn’t cross the line followed by another one scored in the middle of a pitch invasion. But we’ll gloss over that if you don’t mind.

    So hear it is, a record since 1966 of England’s results in competitive internationals against Brazil, Germany (formerly West), Italy and Argentina. If you are squeamish and English, avert thy eyes…

WC = World Cup, EC = European Championships.

1970 WC R1 – England 0 Brazil 1
1970 WC QF – England 2 West Germany 3
1972 EC QF leg 1 – England 1 West Germany 3
1972 EC QF leg 2 – West Germany 0 England 0
1976 WC qualifier – Italy 2 England 0
1977 WC qualifier – England 2 Italy 0
1980 EC R1– Italy 1 England 0
1982 WC R2 – England 0 West Germany 0
1986 WC QF – England 1 Argentina 2
1990 WC SF – England 1 West Germany 1. West Germany win on penalties.
1990 WC 3/4th game – Italy 2 England 1
1996 EC SF – England 1 Germany 1. Germany win on penalties.
1997 WC qualifier – England 0 Italy 1
1997 WC qualifier – Italy 0 England 0
1998 WC R2 – England 2 Argentina 2. Argentina win on penalties.
2000 EC R1 – England 1 Germany 0.
2000 WC qualifier – England 0 Germany 1
2001 WC qualifier – Germany 1 England 5
2002 WC R1 – England 1 Argentina 0
2002 WC QF – England 1 Brazil 2

    And there it is. Twenty matches, only four victories, three draws, and if you count eventually losing out on penalties, thirteen defeats. Until that famous 5-1 in Munich, the only victory England could muster over one of the big players when it counted was against Italy in qualifying for Argentina 78 – and by that stage the group had already been decided and Italy had qualified, making it pretty much a yawning 31 year chasm of failure.

    Of the other three victories since 1966, both wins over Germany were largely irrelevant, however satisfying. England versus Germany was an appalling blemish on the brilliant Euro 2000 and both teams unsurprisingly went our in the first round. Despite the 5-1 and all the optimism it generated, it was Germany that made it to the final of the 2002 World Cup. In their meetings with the big teams that year, England’s victory over Argentina in the first round may have avenged the penalty loss in St Etienne but they were later knocked out of the tournament by Brazil. Like they say in boxing, if the left hook doesn’t get you, the right cross will.

    People will doubtless note that those three victories are recent history, so does this mean the tide is turning? Can we put to bed that gnawing sense of inferiority when we play these teams? Somehow I doubt it. Whilst we have managed to beat Argentina and Germany, quarterfinal heartbreak never seems that far away, maybe it will be the turn of Italy or Brazil next year. Could England ever go on a run like Italy did in 1982 and beat Argentina, Brazil and Germany in one tournament? And as for Brazil, let us not forget the jaw-dropping lack of self-belief in 2002, when England were so paralysed with fear of a pretty ordinary Brazil team they could not even get a shot on target in the last thirty minutes when playing ten men.

    Fear can do funny things to people. We have one player who is utterly fearless in Wayne Rooney, but it’s one hell of a big ask of a twenty year old to take on the world single-handedly. It’s hard enough trying to unlock an Italian, German, Brazilian or Argentinean team, let alone play against the litany of failures of the past 40 years that are burned into the national psyche. He has broad shoulders, but unless he really is our Maradona the burden is too great. Part of me would love to think England could put history in a box and start a new chapter in Germany, although I can’t get the vision out of my head of our players in seven months time looking crestfallen in some centre-circle in Dortmund, Stuttgart or wherever, wondering where it all went wrong, whilst either the Italians, Germans, Brazilians or Argentineans dance around the goal mouth in front of their fans, and turn their thoughts once again to winning the tournament.



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