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Steve Braunias' World Cup Diary: 2 days to kickoff

Jun 11, 2014 Sport


England expects – finally, at last, for the first time since maybe the 1954 World Cup, held a month after a traumatic 7-1 defeat to Hungary – not all that much.

They go into the tournament without any mad fanfare of winning the World Cup. But they may just have an outside chance of taking on and commanding the respect of the vastly inexperienced Costa Rica.

England’s other two opponents in the group stage are Italy and Uruguay. It doesn’t look good. Neither team are likely champions but they both possess a genius.

Uruguay are led by Luis Suarez. All the classic arguments about whether genius redeems an otherwise appalling human being – Wagner, Bobby Fischer, Virginia Woolf – are fought out in the strange case of Suarez. He has such a beautiful touch. But it’s not as though he’s an artist on the pitch, and a shithead off it. He’s a shithead on the pitch, too, in full view, snarling and cheating and foaming at the mouth – he has such awful teeth.

Italy, meanwhile, are led by Andreas Pirlo. Much depends on the magical properties of his magnificent beard. At 35, his beard makes him look twice or even three times that age, a wise old master whose understanding of the game makes you suspect he has played in every World Cup since the tournament began in 1930.

But there is evidence that he’s just as brilliant when clean-shaven. England fans may or may not choose to remember his outrageous penalty two years ago at Euro 2012.

As ever, England’s sternest opponents are England. It doesn’t merely lose at the World Cup. It suffers, it dies – England at the World Cup is Sylvia Plath, calculating her agonies in the famous poem “Lady Lazarus”.

Dying is an art,
Like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

What a calling, to lose in such excruciating circumstances! Such epic defeats, losing at sudden-death penalties after extra-time to Germany (1990), Argentina (1990), and Portugal (2006); there was nothing too bitter in 2002, when Brazil won 2-1, but four years ago England were taken apart 4-1 by Germany, on the operating table, without anaesthetic, to the loud wretched honk of them South African vuvuzelas.

But high expectations set the stage for these tragedies. England should have won in 1990, could have got a lot closer than it did in 1998 and 2006. They were good teams. There were star players, world-class. The class of 2014 is…is…you look at the names in the squad, and you find yourself saying, “Who?”

Who is Rickie Lambert, who is Ross Barkley, who is Fraser Forster? And who are Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, really? For years, these two have strode the English Premier League like colossi; but what are they in an England shirt, other than colossal flops? It’s their last World Cup. Maybe now, at last, finally, they might play a beautiful game.

Wayne Rooney is there. Never mind. England can expect more from Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge, fast and alert, scoring a world-class goal last week in the friendly against Ecuador. And there is reason to also believe in the skill and inventiveness of Arsenal’s midfield duo, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

It’s a decent team. Nothing spectacular, offering nothing revolutionary in tactics or approach – the manager is Roy Hodgson, who seemed to have got the job because at least he wasn’t Italian, like his inscrutable predecessor. Hodgson fashions modest, workmanlike teams. They don’t win anything. But they’re capable, they’re honest, they’re functioning.

They go into Sunday’s crucial game against Italy in good heart. England are always fascinating to watch. They are able to self-destruct at a moment’s notice – but the pressure is off, no one is thinking they are world beaters.

In the circumstances, then, the very real possibility exists that next week at the 2014 World Cup, England have the potential to seriously embarrass Costa Rica – and snatch a draw.


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