In 2006, everything had seemed so good.
England were qualified for the World Cup in Germany, just two years removed from an impressive European Campaign in Portugal (they'd lost on penalties to Portugal in the quarterfinals) that had seen 18-year-old Wayne Rooney become a star and a number of very, very good individual performers show their merits as they headed into the primes of their careers.
It should've been different, then, and maybe it might have been had Rooney not injured his metatarsal weeks before England prepped to face Paraguay in their first group stage match.
Still, with the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Joe and Ashley Cole, Peter Crouch, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry (and, lest we forget, David Beckham) all in their mid-to-late 20s, and all coming off prodigious seasons at club level, there was every reason to think a serious push for silverware was in order.
But the script would play out differently. Rooney, rushed to fitness, was a shadow of his ubiquitous self, Gerrard and Lampard failed to fire together in midfield, Joe Cole provided one sensational strike against Sweden before fizzling.
Were it not for some well-timed connections between Beckham and Crouch, and some positively wondrous free kicks from the then-Galactico, England could have crashed out much sooner than they did (once more, to Portugal in the quarterfinals, once more on penalties).
Cases can be made that England continually shoot themselves in the foot in major competitions—whether it be choking on penalties or failing to control rushes of blood to the head (costly red cards to Beckham in 1998 against Argentina, and Rooney against Portugal in '06).
Whatever the reason, the golden generation of aforementioned stars—so brilliant at club level—have failed to replicate their success at the international scene.
2010 proved nothing more substantial than a four-game argument for a winter break during the Premier League season, as a visibly fatigued Three Lions squad lumbered through the group stages before being thrashed by a swashbuckling, incisive and decisive Germany squad.
The Germans, steeped in youth while England's aging stars were festooned on the cold lump of age, showed just what adventurous play can do to a nation. Since that terrific display in South Africa, where Joachim Low's side eventually finished third, they have embarked upon a supreme run in competitive play, notably missing out on the European title this past summer but playing perhaps the best football north of Spain while doing so.
The current crop of German superstars, the Mesut Ozils, the Sami Khediras, the Thomas Mullers, the Toni Kroos's and on and on (the list seriously goes on for a while—I didn't even mention 2011-2012 German Player of the Year Marco Reus) first introduced on a grand scale in 2010, are now entering into their prime, and should be a genuine threat to nab the country's first silverware since Euro '96 for a long time to come.
Back to England
So where does this leave a nation so proud of its footballing heritage, yet so daunted by its inability to make an imprint on the grandest world stages of late?
June's European campaign, and Tuesday's World Cup 2014 qualifier, can lend some much-needed clarity as to the current state of affairs. The possibility of German-esque success isn't as far as might be construed, either.
England's current group, while steeped in plucky, dangerous sides (Ukraine, Poland, Montenegro) is nevertheless winnable. Away fixtures to those three mentioned countries will be nefariously difficult tests, but England have traveled well in recent years for competitive fixtures, and should continue to do so.
But with the road to Brazil now fixed firmly ahead of them, one wonders just how much an imprint England can make on the competition, should they qualify. Can they improve upon recent form?
One would hope so, although Tuesday's 1-1 draw at Wembley, in which Roy Hodgson's outfit were largely outplayed by the visitors, nipped much of the tepid optimism emanating from the 5-0 victory in Moldova four days prior in the proverbial bud.
For much of the 90 minutes against Oleg Blokhin's side, England were plagued by the same problems of late. They were unable to play out from the back, they lacked any real incisiveness and ingenuity in attack (save for one well-taken Jermain Defoe strike that was called back), and looked unable to cope with Ukraine's powerful midfield engine room.
Gerrard (captaining the side) and Lampard were still starters, and while Terry, Rooney and Cole each missed due to injury, they will undoubtedly be back for the next round of games.
Each can still play a part, but if England are to truly succeed in Brazil, they will need to assume different roles than ones they may have grown accustomed to in recent years.
They can take a page out of Gerrard's book, in that regard.
The Liverpool skipper has reinvented himself under Hodgson, whom he famously defended during the skipper's brief tenure at Anfield. Gerrard plays as a withdrawn central midfielder for England, a role he played to perfection at the Euros, where he cracked the UEFA Technical Team of the Tournament (and made a number of others).
In Poland and Ukraine, Gerrard was a revelation, showcasing his wondrous technical wizardry, but combining it with a steely defensive approach and impeccable positional sense that bolstered England's run to the quarterfinals, where they'd lose to Italy on, you guessed it, penalties.
No longer is he the ubiquitous attacking dynamo from the middle portions of the last decade, when he so often pulled Liverpool from the clutches of despair with some spine-jangling bits of brilliance.
He has accepted his current role with the national team, and it has worked wondrously.
Because, as Gerrard likely realizes, England have a very talented younger generation attempting to filter through the senior ranks and, should its entry be realized in a somewhat-seamless manner, the country could be a force to be reckoned with in years to come.
In Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Daniel Sturridge, Ryan Bertrand, Raheem Sterling and many, many others, Hodgson has what the French term an "embarras de choix," or glut of options, in many departments on the field.
The French connection is actually a telling one, in this regard. France had perhaps their most talented generation in history come through the ranks in the past decade, when Karim Benzema, Jeremy Menez, Samir Nasri and Hatem ben Arfa dazzled world audiences on the way to the 2004 UEFA European U-17 crown.
Their path to the senior level was blocked by the likes of another generation—the most successful in the country's history—who were on their last legs, and would have their final chance for glory in Germany ('06), when they reached the final.
The elder guard who composed that particular squad famously clashed with the younger charges, the most notable bust-up coming between William Gallas and Samir Nasri at the 2008 European Championships. The mixing of the two generations wasn't just oil and water; it came off as a transplant an older body vehemently rejected.
There doesn't appear to be any of the same problems in this England camp, but if they are to avoid the problems France have faced—Les Bleus went through the 2008 Euros and 2010 World Cup without winning a group stage match—they will need to bring along their youngsters in a much more effective manner.
That was seen on Tuesday. The introductions of Welbeck and Sturridge in the second half—not to mention Bertrand, who provided an excellent left-footed volley that led to the awarded penalty Lampard would convert—turned the game on its head.
Ukraine were bunkered in at that juncture, but it mattered little for England's crop. This new generation boasts a collective individual brilliance that can absolutely devastate defenses. As World Cup qualification continues, it will be interesting to see how Hodgson uses them.
If he can bring them along effectively, and give their individual expression room to roam alongside the next generation (Theo Walcott, Adam Johnson, Leighton Baines) and the older guard (Scott Parker and the aforementioned others), England might just have an intriguing option on their hands when they land their jumbo jet in the white-hot sands of Rio in June 2014.
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