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The Eternal Question: Can England Win the World Cup?

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The week before Christmas usually heralds the arrival of confused and desperate men wandering round Debenhams, hipster pop-up bars selling spiced gin with guava filtered mango juice, and the sober realisation that if the shop you work in plays Shakin’ Stevens one more time, a rampage is forthcoming. However, in 2022 things will be different, and not just because England will have sunk so far into its dystopia hipsters will be opening pop-up coffin stalls instead of ones selling ethical fudge. For on December 18th, we’ll be sat shivering in unheated houses to watch the first ever winter World Cup final in Qatar. 

The punishingly long draw of the 2022 World Cup has produced a kind but intriguing draw for England, for a number of reasons. England will face USA, Iran and Scotland, Wales or Ukraine in what is surely one of the most politically charged groups in World Cup history. I can genuinely see Dan Wootten on GB News calling for war at some point during November. On a footballing level, England will inevitably be favourites against teams with much lower quality squads but nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Iran in particular will be an interesting test, a decent side who reached the semi-finals of the Asian Cup and lost only one game in qualifying. Scotland or Wales will come with baggage and emotion that could override quality differentials. Still, England should progress from that group with a relatively small amount of sweat on their brow. 

The question that will become increasingly totemic, pinging from every radio show, tin-pot podcast and jingoistic tabloid back page will be; ‘CAN WE WIN IT?’ Of course, English football fans have been asking that question before virtually every World Cup, with the exception of 2018, which was their best tournament performance of the 21st century before last summer’s heartbreak at Euro 2020. 

Just entering a tournament thinking England is even part of the conversation of potential winners is a form of repeated mass delusion. In over a century of international competition, 1966 anomaly aside, England have basically achieved nothing. As far back as 1924, Gabriel Hanot, editor of L’Equipe and co-creator of the European Cup, wrote in response to the Uruguayan team at that year’s Olympics the idea of English football’s superiority was ‘like comparing Arab thoroughbreds to farm horses.’ 

So to go into a World Cup when the notion that England are genuine contenders for the title, in other countries’ minds as well as our own, is a strange and remarkable feeling. In 2013, Greg Clarke, a satirical take on a UKIP member undercover as FA Chairman, set England the goal of winning the World Cup in Qatar. For those unable to grasp the concept of calendars, he erected a clock counting down to the final. Well, here we are, seven months away from the World Cup and England have, and it feels odd to write this with sincerity, an actual chance of reaching the Holy Grail. 

Since Gareth Southgate took over from wine connoisseur Sam Allardyce in 2016, he has managed England in three tournaments, if you count the Nations League, which only curmudgeons don’t. His record is 4th in the 2018 World Cup, 3rd in the 2019 Nations League and 2nd in Euro 2020. He has won five knockout matches in two tournaments, all England managers combined since 1966 have won a pathetic six. He is objectively the second best manager in England’s international history. A romantic logic suggests that he is on a trajectory in which England will continue upwards to come 1st in his fourth tournament. 

He has done a remarkable job with the English team. You can argue, with clear legitimacy, that England have had two relatively easy draws in the World Cup and the Euros, facing three genuinely top-class teams – Croatia, Germany and Italy – and losing two out of three. But his achievements are deeper than that. When asked about the highlight of England’s campaign at Euro 2020, most people will inevitably say the knockout win against Germany, which was an essential result that proved that England could win a high pressure game against top-class opposition. For me, the most incredible moment of the tournament was the last five minutes of extra-time of the semi-final against Denmark. 

England have just gone 2-1 up, the final is inching millimetres closer to their grasp, this is the moment they will crumble as pressure mounts, the nation’s dreams scattered once more on bright green turf. But they did what no England team have done in my lifetime, they passed the ball around with pure confidence, zipping it between them, denying Denmark even the faintest sniff of a chance. They looked like a proper team. They stood tall, but instead of blood seeping from a headband, they left Denmark chasing shadows. 

Can England win? In the deep of my marrow, the answer will always be no. Too many tournaments and too many childhood broken hearts can ever truly allow me to believe. But this is the first time in probably half a century that England can genuinely lay claim to be contenders. They have excellent players, are finally tactically sophisticated and fluid and a manager they fully believe in. Maybe they can bring it home. It’s the hope that kills you.

Main Image Credits- Embed from Getty Images

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