WITHIN a week of kicking off their World Cup campaign, England are now out of the tournament.
A couple of years of hope, followed by six days of cold reality, and a realisation that they are as far away from dining at football’s top table as ever.
Package holidays to Costa Brava tend to last longer. It is possible to sympathise with the assertion of manager Roy Hodgson, and of several of his players, that they are still getting somewhere, that this World Cup has been a learning curve for youngsters such as Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley, who will form the backbone of the England side for years to come.
However, this ignores the plight of thousands of supporters who have made the trip to Brazil, and who are entitled to feel aggrieved that England have blown their golden ticket to the finals. I sat next to one on a flight to Curitiba yesterday; for months he had been saving up the funds to travel to South America to watch his country.
When we departed from Guarulhos airport in Sao Paulo, England were still clinging to the hope that their World Cup lifeline might extend until at least the beginning of next week. By the time we had landed, just over an hour later, they were out, their last game in these finals now an unappetising clash with Costa Rica, whose fans will still be celebrating their qualification for the knock-out stage.
This time last week, both this supporter and I had been in Manaus; the gateway to the Amazon, to adventure. The hot, oppressive air was pregnant with possibilities. Hodgson was even asked whether he thought England could win the World Cup. He handled this hot potato well, commenting that, like the 31 other managers of the competing countries, he had hopes and ambitions.
Just seven days later England have been evicted from an epic World Cup. Whatever hopes and ambitions Hodgson had harboured in private, it was not this. It was not a week-long stay at the tournament. Indeed, England failed to be competitive for even as long as this; just five days, 19 hours and 49 minutes someone has calculated.
This short wheeze had been the golden generation’s death rattle; the last first-team starter in that gang, skipper Steven Gerrard, is now expected to announce into international retirement. Ditto Frank Lampard, who has yet to see service in this tournament and will surely not now feature in the side against Costa Rica, when England will wrap up their limp campaign in the most downbeat manner imaginable.
People’s expectations were low, but they were not this low. England at least took it to a play-off in 1958, the last time they landed themselves in such a first round pickle.
The long summer, the prospect of which Gerrard warned prior to the critical defeat to Uruguay, is now upon them. There will be days, weeks and months of introspection. On Thursday night in Sao Paulo, Hodgson spoke of there still being “a faint chance”, as of course he had to. This was extinguished yesterday by the winning goal for Costa Rica against Italy from Fulham’s Brian Ruiz, one of a number of players at this World Cup who is signed with an English club.
It says everything that even he was not deemed good enough for the Craven Cottage side, crowded out of the first XI by the likes of Ashkan Dejagah and Hugo Rodallega. Ruiz is currently on loan at PSV Eindhoven. Fulham slipped out of the English Premier League in his absence, but the club can be consoled by an enormous parachute payment of nearly £60 million. Such a sum has been made possible due to the latest huge television deal negotiated by the power brokers of an English Premier League that is again being accused of stifling young local talent.
“The Premier League is always going to attract the best players in the world because it’s got the most money,” commented Hodgson, when it was put to him that Suarez, whose match-winning brace for Uruguay on Thursday amounted to near-fatal slashes of the sword, has been given a football home by the country he helped vanquish. “The best players play where the money is. That’s going to increase the quality of the Premier League.
“That might make my job harder but maybe with the emergence of so many good young players, maybe they’re learning from the talent these people bring, so who knows?” added Hodgson, hopefully. “Maybe, in a perverse sort of way, they will get better as a result of it.”
England go home from a World Cup for which they qualified so comfortably. While expectations were admittedly low, there was still talk of reaching the last 16, perhaps a quarter-final. “We had high hopes, we thought we could make an impact,” said Hodgson, who also stressed he is determined to carry on in the post. “But unfortunately we haven’t won the games. To make an impact you’ve got to win games and we’ve lost both our games.”
High hopes. Much of this optimism is encouraged by the beguiling, chimerical properties of the English Premier League, which has just spent another season showcasing so many of the finest talents in the world game. The trouble, as Hodgson acknowledged on Thursday night, is that so few of them are English.
Suarez may earn his living on Merseyside – for the time being at least – but he is no friend to England. He appeared to delight in their downfall as much as any Uruguayan on Thursday evening.
“It wasn’t revenge, but in England they talked about the injury and the coach had words that annoyed me,” he said afterwards, referencing Hodgson’s comment in the pre-match press conference, when he mused that Suarez probably still had to shine at a World Cup to be considered world-class.
“The England coach said I was a proven Premier League player, but not world class. So there is the answer,” added Suarez.
“Rapaz de Liverpool” ran the headline yesterday across the pull-out supplement that comes with O Globo, one of the leading Brazilian newspapers. This translates loosely as the hungry lad of Liverpool.
In the culinary capital of Brazil, Suarez had certainly taken a bite out of England’s chances of progressing further. Costa Rica yesterday ensured there were no crumbs of comfort to sustain Hodgson over the weekend, winning their second group game in succession. At their well-appointed training camp in Urca, the wealthy neighbourhood of Rio de Janiero, a group of privileged players will now perhaps ponder their part in this miserable experience for England. Or perhaps they won’t. Goalkeeper Joe Hart still sounded bullish when it was put to him that England, in the final analysis, have just not been good enough.
“I imagine that is what some people will come up with,” he said. “We don’t feel that inside the camp as we’ve got bags of quality, bags of people coming through, great leaders, great experienced players in that dressing room. We have just come up short in two games.”
Hart seemed to suggest that this has been a blip, as opposed to a particularly extreme reminder that England are going nowhere very quickly. On hearing who England had been drawn against in December, Greg Dyke, the English FA chairman, was caught on camera sliding a finger across his throat, in recognition of the quality of opposition.
Blinded and bloated by Premier League riches, English football has colluded in slicing its own throat.