England: Serious World Cup Contenders or Overrated Pretenders?

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England: Serious World Cup Contenders or Overrated Pretenders?
(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

There have been a lot of momentous occasions in the history of the England football team, as you would expect from the nation that created, perfected, and exported the world's most popular sport.

Some of these have been joyous occasions, the 1966 World Cup immediately springs to mind as the stand-out moment, but others could support that, such as the 5-1 demolition of Germany in 2001.

Others have been not so enjoyable, such as the humbling at the hands of Hungary in 1953, and being dumped out of the 1950 World Cup by relative minnows USA despite a haughty arrogance that England were still the masters of football.

The ultimately adoring, yet at times scorning English public have been witness to a whole host of great players as well.

The likes of Dixie Dean, Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Billy Wright, Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks, Kevin Keegan, Peter Shilton, Bryan Robson, Paul Gascoigne, Gary Lineker, Tony Adams, David Seaman, and Alan Shearer have all pulled on the Three Lions shirt.

Many of the current crop, namely Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, and Michael Owen, look set to add their names to that illustrious list of legends.

Yet, for all these star players, England only have one major international title to their name—the aforementioned 1966 World Cup.

Whether that success was entirely international is debatable too. After all, the tournament was held in England itself.

Indeed, not only have the players listed above, as well as a whole host of others, failed to achieve on the highest level, they have greatly underachieved.

Finney and Wright were part of the squad that travelled to the 1950 World Cup with Matthews joining them later, fully expecting to play a part in the tournament after England brushed aside USA.

That never happened, and the English received a wake-up call that would be emphatically confirmed three years later when Hungary thrashed them twice.

The 1966 side was a great team. It didn't rely on great individuals, although in Bobby Charlton and Moore it had them.

Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters, Jack Charlton, and Geoff Hurst were never the greatest players in the world, or indeed at their respective clubs, but Alf Ramsey made them into great team players, leading England to success.

England has never reached those heights since.

The most recent case of underachieving English stars came in the fateful Steve McClaren era.

Failure to qualify for the 2008 European Championships was a huge shock and an eye-opener as to where England stood in the world.

Yet, on the 09/09/09, an England side consisting of largely the same players unequivocally booked their place in the 2010 World Cup against the same side that prevented them from reaching the last major tournament—Croatia.

Already, due to the exciting football England are playing (it was a 5-1 win that sealed their World Cup place) and the 100 percent record they have maintained, fans and pundits alike are asking whether England have what it takes to win the competition.

While this talk is massively premature (anything can happen in a year, after all), the fact that England's star players are starting to live up to their hype is encouraging.

It has also reassured me that England are not overrated pretenders.

Despite the relative lack of success in international tournaments, English players have proved that they can compete with their foreign peers.

The Ballon d'Or is widely regarded as the most prestigious individual award in football, even more so than the FIFA World Player of the Year award.

Stanley Matthews won the first ever Ballon d'Or in 1956, while a year later Billy Wright came second and Duncan Edwards third. Johnny Haynes of Fulham also came third in 1961.

Two years later, Jimmy Greaves matched that position, and just three years after that, Bobby Charlton became England's second winner of the award. He finished runner-up for the following two years, and his World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore equalled that placing 1970.

Kevin Keegan was the next Englishman to receive Ballon d'Or recognition, coming second in 1977, followed by consecutive wins in '78 and '79.

Gary Lineker came second in 1986, while ten years later Alan Shearer came third in the voting.

David Beckham finished behind only Rivaldo in 1999, while in 2001 Michael Owen gave the Ballon d'Or it's first English winner in over 20 years.

In 2005, for the first time in almost 50 years, England had two players in the top three, with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard missing out to Ronaldinho.

England's five winners of the award puts them fourth in the all-time table alongside Brazil and Italy, not bad company I think you'll agree.

While the Brazilian stats may be skewed by the fact that non-Europeans weren't eligible until 1995, the fact that England have had a representative in every decade proves they consistently produce world class players.

So why the lack of silverware?

Lack of depth could be one reason. If one player gets injured, England need a player of a similar quality to take his place.

This has been a problem in recent years especially, highlighted by the loss of Wayne Rooney in Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup.

Perhaps the biggest reason for England's continued underachievement in international tournaments, however, is the lack of a strong "team".

Sir Alf Ramsey built one in 1966, but since then the world class players haven't been backed up by good team players.

Therefore, if England's best fail to shine, which has been a popular criticism in recent years, then the team will inevitably fail.

Fabio Capello seems to be incorporating that team spirit into the current side, which gives me the hope that England can finally show the world what they're capable of by the time the 2010 World Cup rolls along.

Will they win it?

It is way too early to tell, although the possibility of Argentina, France, and particularly the bogey team Portugal not qualifying will increase their chances.

If Capello's era thus far has taught me one thing, though, it is that England are serious contenders, and not just overrated pretenders.

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