Roy Hodgson’s England face two crunch FIFA World Cup qualifiers in the coming days that will determine whether or not they will be competing at next summer’s World Cup finals in Brazil, but even if they do make it to South America in 2014, do the Three Lions actually have a realistic hope of winning the tournament?
Well, ever since the 66-year-old was surprisingly chosen by The Football Association (FA) ahead of the people’s favourite Harry Redknapp to succeed Fabio Capello as England manager in May 2012, expectations around the national team have largely been dampened down.
In fact, England have never entered the finals of a major international tournament with such low hopes as they did going into the European Championship in Ukraine and Poland in June 2012.
And in many ways, Euro 2012 should now be used as the benchmark going forward for future England teams as they prepare for competitions, starting with Brazil 2014, should Hodgson and Co. make it to Rio next June that is.
As first England must overcome the tricky looking double challenge of qualifiers against Montenegro and Poland, both internationals which are to be played at Wembley Stadium on Friday and Tuesday night respectively.
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And the equation is simple: Win both matches, and England will be at the World Cup. However, slip up in either of those two contests, and the door will be left open for second-placed Ukraine or third-in-the-table Montenegro to bypass the Three Lions on the road to Rio, while Hodgson and Co will be left with the perils of facing a two-legged playoff next month in which to seal their safe passage to Brazil.
So before we can even start to gauge what England’s realistic expectations are at next summer’s global showpiece event, it is important to first stress that as England coach one of the main hopes now is simply to qualify for tournaments, whereas in years gone by that achievement would automatically be taken as a given.
However, assuming that Hodgson can successfully manage to steer the Three Lions to South America next year, whether that be via automatic qualification or the dreaded playoffs, then just what should England’s large contingent of travelling fans expect from their side in the heat and humidity of a World Cup played in Brazil?
The first thing to say on that matter is in the 83-year history of the tournament, no team from Europe has ever won the competition when it has been staged in South America, so any slim hopes England fans may have had in this regard can be extinguished immediately.
In fact, the Three Lions have only ever made it as far as the semi-finals of the World Cup on one occasion when they have not hosted the tournament themselves, and that was in 1990 when they lost on penalties to eventual winners West Germany.
Other than at Italia 90 though, it really has just been a collection of exits in the knockout rounds for England over the years, and that was no different in the last World Cup in South Africa three years ago.
On that occasion under the management of one of world football’s most respected and successful club coaches, Fabio Capello, England were eliminated from the competition in the round of 16 with their tails well and truly between their legs after being thrashed 4-1 by arch-rivals Germany in Bloemfontein (see above video).
But next summer, man for man the squad will be infinitely weaker than that chosen in 2010, while if you were to compare the two managerial careers of Capello and Hodgson, the only similarity you would find between the two is that they both once coached at San Siro.
And to confirm the all-round feeling that England have regressed since their last appearance in the World Cup in the summer of 2010, one only needs to consult the most recent world rankings released by FIFA last month that show Hodgson’s side now languishing down in 17th place.
Now, compare that to where the side were placed going into the tournament three years ago, when Capello’s team were seeded on the basis of being ranked as one of Planet Football’s top eight nations.
Whereas at Brazil 2014, the Three Lions face the daunting prospect of being drawn in a group with either the hosts, holders Spain, or the likes of Argentina, Germany, Italy, Colombia, Belgium and Uruguay.
Meanwhile, there would be no guarantee whatsoever that Hodgson’s side would even make it out of the group stage and in to the round of 16, as they did under Capello last time out, given the all-round respective strength of those nations currently situated in and around England in the current world rankings.
Countries of the strength of the runners-up at South Africa 2010, Netherlands, as well as the likes of Portugal, Russia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mexico, France and USA, especially when you consider the struggles the Three Lions have had even trying to qualify for next summer’s jamboree.
As I am sure no one really needs reminding that going into Friday’s penultimate qualifier against Montenegro, England have actually yet to get the better of the tiny Balkan nation in any of their previous three meetings.
Not only that, but since Hodgson replaced Capello in the Three Lions hot seat, England have also failed to beat Belgium, Norway, France, Italy, Sweden, Brazil, Ukraine (twice) and Poland.
And so that should give most fans, pundits and neutrals alike a fair idea of just where this current group of England players stand in relation to their rivals throughout the world when it comes to gauging just what to realistically expect from the team in Brazil next summer.
However, what of those players though, the men who will collectively shoulder a whole nation's hopes at next year’s World Cup, as they are surely the most realistic guide as to how well the Three Lions can expect to do?
Well, you would have to have been on the planet Mars recently not to have heard the now familiar debate raging in the media about the lack of England-qualified players playing in the Premier League week in, week out, who are available to Hodgson at present, with the figure currently at worryingly low 33 percent.
And perhaps of even greater concern looking ahead to next summer’s tournament in South America is that of those 33 percent of Englishmen, just how many would actually be considered as truly world-class players capable of being selected to start for, say, Spain, Germany or Argentina for example?
The answer, sadly, is that on current showings, very few indeed, with maybe Chelsea left-back Ashley Cole, Arsenal midfield player Jack Wilshere (when he is not injured of course) and Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney making the grade.
But, other than that trio though, you really would be hard pressed to construct any sort of sound argument for the inclusion of many other Englishmen, which should tell Three Lions supporters just what they need to know when deciding exactly how long to book their holiday to Brazil for next summer.
The ironic thing about the situation which England now find themselves in, however, is that former national team manager Sven-Goran Eriksson was given the boot for “only” taking the team as far as the quarter-finals of major international tournaments, which the Swede managed to achieve in the three consecutive competitions he was in charge for between 2002 and 2006.
And yet following Sven’s exit, England have actually regressed, with failure to qualify for Euro 2008, followed by a limp second-round exit at South Africa 2010 and then last time out at Euro 2012 defeat on penalties in the last eight to Italy.
That pattern has actually been taking shape since England’s high-water mark at Wembley in July 1966, with relatively impressive showings following at Mexico 70, Spain 82, Mexico 86 and Italia 90, followed by the “Eriksson Last-Eight Years,” and then the situation in which England find themselves in now, which could be called the “Second-Round Years” I suppose.
However, based on the current FIFA world rankings, England would not even be expected to get out of the group phase at next year’s World Cup, although you can be sure that if Hodgson does manage to get the Three Lions to Brazil in June, then that would be considered to be his minimum requirement by both fans and his bosses at The FA.
But realistically, Hodgson and Co will have actually exceeded expectations in many ways by going beyond the second round of the tournament in South America next year, and while that may be a salutary thought to many of the nation’s fans, they should actually start getting used to it as that is what the future now has in store for the Three Lions on the international stage.