It's that time of year once again—every two years (considering their country has qualified), England fans grit their teeth, hold their breath and hope for some success at an international competition. Ever since 1966, however, fans have always been left reeling with bitter disappointment and crushed expectations.
As an Englishman myself, I have of course grown up experiencing those same crushing losses: crashing out at the group stage in Belgium and Holland in 2000, the penalty shoot-out nightmare in Portugal of 2004, and most recently, the unequivocally shameful defeat two years ago to the Germans in Bloemfontein.
Despite this, there remains a cynical doubt that yet again, England will fail to progress past the group stages at this year's European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. Putting patriotism aside and replacing it with cold, hard sense, it is hard to knock the doubters' opinions.
Although his experience at both club and international level cannot be knocked, Roy Hodgson has perhaps never had the burden of the expectations of fans as passionate and desperate for success as those of England. His unremarkable stint at Liverpool might suggest he would struggle to manage England's big 'ego' players—the big personalities of Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and John Terry. On top of that, there's also the issue of Rio Ferdinand.
With Terry's racism trial looming after the Euros (also involving Rio's brother Anton Ferdinand, defender for Queens Park Rangers), many critics would have plumped for Rio over Terry when picking central defenders. If a desire for internal harmony within the England camp meant that only one could be picked, many men would have opted for the Manchester United player as opposed to Chelsea's captain.
When Terry had previously been stripped of the captain's armband, Hodgson must have realised he was a character of particular controversy, and that while his exclusion wouldn't have been ideal, Ferdinand's experience at international level would have been a sufficient replacement. Even having him in the squad while giving a chance to players like Phil Jones, Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott would have been beneficial to the squad.
Instead, Hodgson chose Terry; while this maintains experience within the defensive unit, it still courted controversy and took the focus away from the squad's preparations and caused discord within the squad. Not the ideal way to prepare for your first major tournament as England manager, even if the decision was a "footballing one".
Then there are the other odd choices in the squad. Stewart Downing's place in the squad must be questioned after a statistically embarrassing first season at Anfield (no goals, no assists in the Premier League). Similarly, Andy Carroll has done little but underwhelm since his £35 million move to Liverpool in January 2011, and his place in the squad takes opportunities away from the likes of Daniel Sturridge and Grant Holt, who have both had more consistently successful seasons with Chelsea and Norwich City, respectively.
Finally, there is the small matter of the other three teams in Group D. England's campaign begins in Donetsk on Monday evening against France, a team unbeaten in 21 games and in excellent form; indeed, in many minds, France are the tournament's "dark horse", looking to bounce back from the humiliation of the group stage exit of South Africa 2010.
A team boasting creative talent such as Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery and Mathieu Valbuena, who have been rejuvenated under the leadership of former Manchester United defender Laurent Blanc, look in confident mood ahead of the confrontation in Donetsk. Patriotic optimism aside, it seems unlikely England will take anything more than a point away from this game, and taking nothing away seems even more likely.
Without Rooney, Hodgson will probably start Carroll but should instead plump for Danny Welbeck, who has the creative abilities on the ground Carroll lacks. Welbeck can create goalscoring opportunities and make a nuisance of himself for the French defence, something Carroll has lacked the ability to do in his 18-month stint at Liverpool.
The only game England fans should expect a win in is the last, when Rooney returns to the starting lineup to head the attack against Ukraine. Depending on results, if England lose to France and can only manage a draw with Sweden, qualification from the group stages could hinge on a strong finish - however, they could already have been eliminated from contention in terms of progress.
And should they somehow qualify behind France, likelihood dictates they'll face the reigning World Champions and probable winners of Group C, Spain. If England somehow make it through the group stages, they'll have to face one of the most complete teams in international football in recent memory.
In 2014, 48 years on from the triumph of 1966, England may have a better chance of ending the major trophy drought. In 2012, England will not progress past the group stages.
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