Hello 2018 Richard,
This is yourself from two years ago speaking. I hope that life has been treating you well. I hope that Britain’s recent decision to leave the EU has not left you scrabbling for survival in a dystopian wasteland where fire rains from the sky; and if Game of Thrones has come to an end, I hope the conclusion was a satisfactory one. But you don’t have control over either of those things. Instead I want to talk to you about something you do have control over: how you approach your viewing of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
This is assuming, of course, that England have qualified for the tournament. Obviously this is not guaranteed, but in recent years, England haven’t given too much cause for concern in qualifiers. And as the final tournament approaches, you’re no doubt getting your hopes up. You see, I know you, Richard. You have a logical mind, but you’re an optimist at heart. You certainly won’t have forgotten that in their last major tournament, Euro 2016, England finished second in their group and then lost in the knockout stages to Iceland, a team which was managed by a dentist and represented a country whose population was about the size of Coventry. But you’ve had two years to make peace with that; two years to watch England perform respectably in the qualifiers; two years to convince yourself that maybe this time, things will be better. You’re not so deluded as to imagine England will win the World Cup, but a respectable quarter final place is hopefully within our grasp. And who knows – miracles do happen!
But my purpose, Richard, is to drown your misguided hopes. Miracles never happen when England is concerned. I mean never ever. Never, ever, ever, ever.
I am writing to you three days after we were beaten by Iceland, and that match – plus the group stage games that preceded it – is still fresh in my mind. The optimism is gone for another tournament, to be replaced by cold realism, and that is what I need to instil in you. England did not deserve to win against Iceland on any level; they were a bunch of headless chickens. The TV pundits afterwards were not merely disappointed; they were angry. And then there was that first group game against Russia: that last minute goal should not have mattered because England should have been out of sight from the number of chances they had. The Wales game was OK, but then they let themselves be totally confounded by Slovakia’s defensive play. As in the last World Cup, England had some good moments – but those good moments meant nothing because they almost never resulted in goals, and they were countered by the opposing team making sure that their own shots did count. Yes, England can play convincingly in qualifiers, and sometimes in friendlies – but at the finals, when it really matters, all these superstar players suddenly think the goal is much larger than it actually is, or forget what to do just as the ball is approaching our own goal.
And regardless of who our new manager turns out to be, I don’t see any significant improvement for 2018. After our abysmal performance in the 2010 World Cup – a performance which, you may recall, came off some fantastic qualifying play under Fabio Capello – there was a lot of talk about what went wrong. A consensus among people in the know was that there are too many foreign players taking up space in the Premier League, and that we weren’t paying enough attention to our youth. Six years on, have these problems been addressed? Based on results, no.
“What’s your point?” I hear you ask. My point is this, Richard: you need to accept that England are not a very good football team. Actually, that’s not quite true: it would be more accurate to say that we are not a very good football team when it counts. We can hold our own but we can’t be expected to beat the big boys; we are more on Croatia or Portugal’s level, and that’s on a good day. I repeat: we just lost to Iceland, and deservedly so.
Going into this World Cup, you need to lower your expectations. Tell yourself that England will scrape into the second round and go no further. Hell, tell yourself that getting out of the group stage could be considered a success. I know you like to be optimistic, and that’s lovely, but now is the time for realism. I’m not being mean, Richard; I just don’t want you to get hurt. Listen to the cynics, bury your optimism, take the little achievements as successes, and just enjoy the football for what it is.
If England do well in Russia, I will be happy that I was wrong. But it is far more likely that they won’t. Other countries can accept that of their teams, and so can you.
All the best, mate.
Richard (30th June 2016)