At a young age, everyone dreams of becoming a professional footballer, playing the sport they love and playing at the highest level. Once a professional contract is signed, that dream has the potential to become a reality.
Nothing is grander than the stage of the World Cup. The globe looks on full of expectation and scrutiny as players aspire to become world champions, and then be privileged to have the status as a national and world hero.
England are one of many nations who place expectation and intense pressure upon the shoulders of the national team. At times, for the players, it can become a burden to contend with, which can result in the team buckling under the pressure or unable to sustain the expectations.
Whether as an individual or collectively as a team, when you are at the summit of your career or placed on a high pedestal, it can become difficult to maintain.
The best players in the world always wish to grace a World Cup, irrespective of their age. Nonetheless, there are many past greats, George Best, George Weah, Eric Cantona, Alfredo Di Stefano, and Ian Rush were never fortunate enough to play at the World Cup.
In recent years, Jari Litmanen, Ryan Giggs, Dimitar Berbatov, Eidur Gudjohnsen, and Sami Hyypia have not had the opportunity at playing at the World Cup.
Even Nicholas Anelka has been overlooked and has not played at the World Cup, although thanks to Thierry Henry’s handball he is undoubtedly on the plane to South Africa.
Given the way they disposed of teams in the qualifying stage, fans can be forgiven for expecting England to continue in the same vein in South Africa. England’s group in the World Cup is by no means straightforward, yet such is the expectation progression is demanded.
The 2006 World Cup was when England supposedly had the best squad at their disposal in recent years. Yet they fell short, stumbled at the quarter final stage hurdle, which brought an end to Sven Goren Eriksson’s reign as manager. This elimination, coupled with the shambolic 2008 European Championship qualifying campaign, has brought an immense amount of pressure upon the England team.
The current England squad has the World Cup-winning squad of 1966 to live up to. The present crop of stars are undeniably of high stature and class, yet have failed to prove themselves at international level. Nevertheless, the hunger for the coveted World Cup remains.
Every team, be it national or at club level, cannot maintain even their best players on a yearly basis. Age takes its toll on players, while some players are privileged enough to compete in one World Cup. Many have been “greedy” in playing in up to three.
It would not be completely amiss of me to question whether the top stars will ever grace the World Cup stage again, if England were unable to win it this year. Goalkeeper David James is aged 39, surely even for a goalkeeper this is his last World Cup. Next in line remains a predicament, but not for the good reasons.
Other European countries such as Spain have many goalkeepers; with Iker Casilias as the current No. 1 and Liverpool’s Jose Reina as second choice. Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes very rarely makes the squad, which says it all about the quality of Spain’s goalkeepers.
While England have goalkeepers in abundance, the quality remains woeful. David James will not be at the next World Cup, let alone the next European Championships. The likes of Paul Robinson, Scott Carson, Robert Green, Chris Kirkland, and Ben Foster have tried yet failed. For all of their heroics at club level, they have lacked the concentration required at International level.
The question will remain if any of these have what it takes to be the England No. 1 for the next World Cup. If form continues as it is, it will be difficult to rule out Joe Hart as a potential England No. 1.
In John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, England possesses one of the meanest defensive combination in the world. Yet this dynamic duo will surely be separated come the next World Cup. Terry and Ferdinand will be 33 and 35 respectively, and while they will have experience in great quantity, their pace will suffer as Sol Campbell has found out.
Potential replacements will need to provide a stiff partnership to replicate what Terry and Ferdinand have demonstrated for club and country. The likes of Phil Jagielka, Ryan Shawcross, and Gary Cayhill will be at the peak of their careers and will have huge boots to fill. Perhaps a size ten or eleven.
Young potential who could fill the void include Michael Mancienne, Micah Richards and James Tomkins, but the 2014 World Cup may be too much too soon for the latter.
Should Gary Neville be on the trip to South Africa, as his form warrants, he too will be one of many defenders who will be playing at their final World Cup. Having won everything as a club player at United, he too would consider this a pivotal World Cup for England’s best squad in recent years.
England can boast at having two of the best midfielders in the world with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. Come the next World Cup they will be 35 and 33 respectively, and could be used sparingly or at best a Beckham like role. If one of these are not in the starting 11 it becomes a weakness, so for the next World Cup to perhaps have neither becomes a huge concern.
The likes of Michael Carrick and Gareth Barry are of a similar age too, and could see their influence limited. This could provide opportunities for promising Arsenal and Everton youngsters Jack Rodwell and Jack Wilshere. Sunderland’s Lee Cattermole could too be next in line to step up, yet the credentials of all will be put into question in the very near future.
If there is one department you feel England will not suffer in it is attack. Despite his previous appearances and goal records, Owen is not expected to feature for England in this year’s World Cup. In the previous World Cups where he has played, the onus has been on him to produce the goals when England needed it most.
Now that responsibility falls upon Wayne Rooney, whose free scoring antics—despite his recent injury—will bring fear toward even the world’s best defenders.
Nonetheless, come 2014, Rooney will be at the peak of his career and while many will suggest this is “his” World Cup to take by storm, he will undoubtedly have another chance if this year’s tournament is not a successful one. The likes of Emile Heskey will be 36 come the next World Cup and will surely be obsolete by then.
Even with a lack of pace, Peter Crouch will be cautious of another appearance at a World Cup, as he will too join the 33-year-old club. Jermaine Defoe, who has arguably not proved himself at International level, will just be 31 and perhaps have something to offer. Yet his pace will of course suffer as age takes its toll.
The likes of Carlton Cole, Darren Bent, and Gabrielle Agbonlahor will be pushing for places. Whether they are considered to have the calibre to contest with better defenders than those in the Premier League remains to be answered.
With many of the current stars potentially playing in their last tournament, they will want to win the prestigious trophy that has eluded England since 1966.
Should England not win the World Cup this year, looking at the players who will fill the void by those who can no longer have an influence of what they once had, you feel the wait could go on longer.
That is no disrespect to the remaining England squad of course, yet we hear of Barcelona consistently bringing new Spanish gems into the game and up and coming Brazilians travelling overseas to ply their trade in Europe. While England, since Rooney, have yet to unearth a potential stars for the next generation of England players.
You wander how many times Baddiel and Skinner will re-record “Three Lions” before even they announce retirement and give up. Nevertheless, as this year’s World Cup reaches its opening, the fans will cling onto every once of hope and faith in the role models of Terry, Ferdinand, Rooney, Gerrard, and Lampard; for In Gland We Trust.
Potential 2014 World Cup Starting 11
Goalkeeper: Joe Hart
Right Back: Glen Johnson
Center Back: Joleon Lescott
Center Back: Micah Richards
Left Back: Ashley Cole/Leighton Baines
Right Mid: Aaron Lennon
Center Mid: James Milner
Center Mid: Jermaine Jenas
Left Mid: Ashley Young
Striker: Wayne Rooney
Striker: Theo Walcott/Gabriel Agbonlahor