Football comment: England versus Brazil, friendly or no friendly, is a tasty international fixture to mark the start of the Football Association’s 150th birthday celebrations.
It will be a feast of free-flowing football — and England. Nevermind, with the other home opponents lined up so far, comprising the Republic of Ireland (last qualified for a World Cup in 2002, at Euro 2012 failed to win a single game) and Scotland (last qualified for any tournament in 1998) England fans should be able to look forward to some home victories to savour.
Although what exactly the players, manager and coaches will learn by playing these teams is anyone’s guess.
These opponents have been chosen to put bottoms on seats and stir up memories of old and more recent rivalries, rather than for the quality of the football.
The period since Euro ’96 has been a successful one for the England team, relatively speaking. Qualification for every tournament, except Euro 2008, was achieved.
This compares well with the 1990s when England failed to qualify for World Cup ’94, the 1980s when the team failed to reach for Euro ’84 and the dismal 1970s with failures to qualify for the World Cup in both 1974 and 1978.
The much-maligned Sven Goran Eriksson took England to three consecutive quarter-finals in 2002, 2004 and 2006.
The latter two saw Eriksson’s men lose on penalties, while at World Cup 2002 England lost to the eventual winners of the tournament, tomorrow’s opponents Brazil. Very few England managers have come close to matching Eriksson’s achievement.
Current manager Roy Hodgson has started well too, surprising many by taking England to the top of their first-round group at Euro 2012 before going out on penalties to Italy in the quarter-finals.
Not bad, but not good enough, many England fans would argue, with the 47-year-old memories of 1966 still fresh in the nation’s memory.
Comparatively speaking, in terms of England’s size of population and number of professional players, getting into the top eight of the world’s teams is a considerable achievement.
It’s just that England’s national psyche, which is largely impossible to separate from the legacy of empire, the martial history and having invented most of the world’s sports, means that many followers of the national team expect trophies to be won and nothing much else will do.
World Cup 2010 dented this mindset considerably. The team was arguably the strongest since 1996. In Wayne Rooney, England had a world-class player in their starting XI.
The spine of the team was looking good too from Ashley Cole at the back, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in midfield. Theo Walcott, too, had shown promise with his hat-trick against Croatia in the qualifying campaign, though manager Fabio Capello surprisingly chose not to take him to South Africa.
The sorry exit at the hands of Germany, losing 4-1 at the last-16 stage following a series of dismal group games put paid to all of that pent-up optimism.
Yes, England can still fill Wembley, as will be the case tomorrow, and the team can count on a size of support that dwarfs that enjoyed by most other European countries, home and away.
But in terms of the much bigger, broader audience, with a St George’s Cross flying out of every other car window, worn as a T-shirt and daubed on kids’ faces, there was precious little of this during last year’s Euro 2012.
The TV viewing figures were impressive, but this was more a case of going through the motions from the comfort of the sofa. There was little of the magnitude of the spectacle of London 2012.
In last year’s summer of sport, from Chelsea winning the Champions League, via Wiggo winning Le Tour, to Europe’s victory in the Ryder Cup and Andy Murray ending the British tennis version of the years of hurt in New York, well, England at the Euros hardly merits even a footnote.
Getting used to England being the eighth best team in the world probably isn’t quite how those organising the FA’s centenary in 1963 envisaged the next 50 years.
A decent performance at the 1962 World Cup — yes, once again losing a quarter-final and spookily it was to Brazil once more, the eventual tournament winners that year too — was the cause of some optimism.
And they would have been looking forward as well to hosting the World Cup three years later in 1966 with the emerging talent of a youthful Bobby Moore suggesting this team had considerable promise.
Today there is precious little optimism. The crop of young players coming through look decent enough, but well short of being world-beaters.
It will take something special in Brazil next year to restore public optimism around the England to anything approaching previous levels.
Still, if we finish the year having beaten Scotland at Wembley, plenty will be happy enough.
Maybe actually the FA’s 150th anniversary fixture list is inspired, after all, by the management of low expectations?
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters’ of intellectual distinction, aka Philosophy Football
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