THE last time England got to this stage at a World Cup there was no happy ending — a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany at South Africa 2010.
Well at least we know that isn’t going to happen, Auf Wiedersehen before the postcards, ouch!
While it might do not to be too cocky, England have a decent record in the last 16 round when not up against a top-tier football nation, beating Ecuador at the 2006 World Cup, Denmark in 2002, Belgium in 1990 and Paraguay in 1986.
But out of that lot the only time England then made it past the quarters to the semis was when, after beating Belgium at Italia ’90 in the last 16, we faced Cameroon rather than a higher-ranked team.
This is what makes the Russia 2018 campaign so mouth-watering a prospect. Beat Colombia and the quarter will be against Sweden or Switzerland. And with Spain dispatched, England’s semi-final opponent would be Russia or Croatia. Arguably there has never been a World Cup like it for sending well-fancied former tournament winners home early.
But again, don’t go getting ahead of ourselves. Since England’s last World Cup semi-final appearance 28 years ago, non top-tier football nations Bulgaria, Sweden, Croatia, Turkey, South Korea, Portugal, those that have never won the World Cup or played in a final, have made it this far.
England’s world standing never moved on after 1990 in these intervening almost three decades. It fell behind others and in the recent past has slipped back still further.
Thus, Colombia, Sweden or Switzerland, Croatia or Russia can’t be taken as lightly as some might assume.
All those fancied teams going home early has opened up the tournament, but something else has happened too. No African team made it into the last 16.
Pele’s prediction that an African team team would win the World Cup by 2000 looks as far away as ever and, with only Japan in the last 16, the same goes for Asia too.
Football is a truly global game but the very top level remains a European-Latin American cartel, with little obvious sign of that changing.
World Cups have been won, since their inception, by a remarkably small number of teams.
Following England’s one and only triumph, newcomers Argentina have won the trophy twice, in 1978 and ’86, while host nation France lifted the trophy three tournaments later for the first time in ’98 and, another three tournaments later, Spain did the same in 2010.
After the exits of Germany and Argentina, the failure of either four-times winners Italy to qualify or Netherlands, who hold the unenviable record of making the most appearances in a World Cup final without winning it, the best possible outcome from Russia 2018 would be for a nation that’s never won the World Cup to lift the trophy, or England, of course.
World Cup winners may be more or less unchanging, yet something else has changed for European teams in particular.
When England won the World Cup in 1966, the team was all-white. Twenty-four years later and the team that lined up once again to face West Germany in the ’90 semi-final included just two black players, Des Walker and Paul Parker.
Another 28 years on and in the team to face Colombia tonight, more than half the line-up will be black or mixed-race. Something, when it happened at World Cup 2002 for the first time, seemed so natural a development it barely merited a mention.
And what is true of England, the same more or less goes for France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Portugal too, teams made up of a patchwork of a nation’s migrant communities.
Of course the meaning and effect of all this can be overstated. At France ’98, Zinedine Zidane led arguably the greatest multicultural team of all to World Cup triumph and two years later the same at Euro 2000.
But in 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into the final round of the French presidential election for the first time ever, polling almost 20 per cent of the vote.
And in 2017 Marine Le Pen achieved the same, this time attracting a third of the popular vote, but the point is that a St George Cross draped in the colours of multiculturalism has the potential for the beginnings of a journey away from racism.
It has a reach and symbolism like no other, touching the parts of a nation’s soul no protest placard waved in our faces is ever going to do.
This is the meaning of modern football and, when England begin to scale the heights of 2018 World Cup ambition, the reach of that message is amplified still further in a scale and way that ’66 could never have done and ’90 barely began.
A left politics, if it is to be popular, must connect with such episodes as metaphor, to translate what we see on the pitch into the changes beyond the touchline we require of a more equal society.
So here’s my maxim for Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues. If Labour cannot explain the meaning of the World Cup, why should I listen to what the party has to tell me on how they’re going to fix the mess the NHS is in?
Not the flimsy populism of Tony Blair when he adopted the “Labour’s Coming Home” message after England’s last tournament semi, Euro ‘96, but a political practice rooted in popular culture because here, more than anywhere else, ideas are formed and changed.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football. Its England Expects T-shirt is available from www.philosophyfootball.com
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