England: The country that invented the "beautiful game" but has only ever triumphed once in a major tournament, and that was with home advantage. This year, an unfancied team could go far at the World Cup.
In the mid-2000s, on the eve of World Cups and European Championships, it was customary for England fans and pundits to voice the team’s chances. After all, this was the golden generation of Ashley Cole, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, Michael Owen, and the precociously gifted Wayne Rooney.
But after the failure to qualify for Euro 2008, English national footballing pride took a considerable hit, and it took the arrival of an expensive and decorated foreign coach, Fabio Capello, to reinstil hope. But even Capello was unable to improve on the quarter-final exits under Sven Goran Eriksson.
At Euro 2012, Roy Hodgson was asked to fill the breach at short notice after Capello’s shock resignation over the decision to strip John Terry of the England captaincy. For once, the English seemed to accept that they were not favourites going into a tournament.
A similar situation appears for this year’s World Cup in Brazil, now a month away.
The 'Govt says England won't win the world cup shocker' story should read 'Govt does accurate impact assessment on policy shocker' #england— Tom Mooney (@tmoouk) May 14, 2014
As the BBC reported in October, both FA Chairman Greg Dyke and former England boss Glenn Hoddle have written off England’s chances in Brazil. The latter told that BBC that: "It is unrealistic for England to think they can go and win the World Cup in Brazil."
But the very fact that these high-profile figures feel it is necessary to play down English hopes is indicative of a prevailing sense of at best optimism, at worst a sense of entitlement.
But whilst it would take a major miracle for England to triumph in Brazil, a strong team is starting to take shape. In goal, Joe Hart has returned to form and at the back Gary Cahill is excellent on a weekly basis for Chelsea, while pundits eulogise the qualities of Leighton Baines.
In midfield, Steven Gerrard has had an excellent campaign, redefining himself into a deep-lying conductor of play akin to Andrea Pirlo when Italy beat England in 2012. There is pace in attack too: Raheem Sterling has matured into a frightening prospect for defences, Ross Barkley is supremely talented and Daniel Sturridge is in the form of his life.
Further, if Wayne Rooney performs well, he is the closest thing England have to Sturridge’s strike partner Luis Suarez. The two have the potential to combine to excellent effect.
If England don’t perform at the World Cup, it won’t be because the talent is not there, but the age-old problem of how to get these individuals to transfer their club form to the international stage. A lot of that rests on manager Roy Hodgson. Can he get the better of Cesare Prandelli as England take on Italy in steamy Manaus? Can he out-think Oscar Tabarez, expose Uruguay’s weak defence and contain Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani?
For once, going into a World Cup England are under-hyped. But not being labelled as "favourites" should not serve to explain away a poor performance. The players are in form and there is a great chance to restore pride in the English game.