So MANY justifiable questions, so few convincing answers. But the bottom line is that instead of being the mother of all fixtures that determines England’s
future in the World Cup – which was always the plan – today’s
encounter in Brazil’s third
largest city is one damp squib of a final swansong.
And instead of England’s legions of fans looking forward to travelling to either Rio or Recife to what should have been an eminently winnable last-16 tie, it is pre-tournament no-hopers Costa Rica who have turned the tournament on its head and have shown Roy Hodgson’s highly-paid stars how it should be done.
Facing the media yesterday at his penultimate appearance – the squad flies straight home after today’s lunchtime kick-off – Hodgson attempted to put on a brave face but could not really add to what he had already said. Anguish, frustration, the worst period of his long managerial career, players perhaps not being street wise enough etc etc.
He was anxious to avoid anyone harping back to the fact that this was the city where England famously lost to the United States in 1950 in what is still ranked as the greatest upsets in world football.
“Referring back to 1950 serves no purpose,” said Hodgson, “apart from the fact that it is an interesting quirk unless we were to lose the game which we have no intention of doing.” Steven Gerrard’s niggling groin injury means Frank Lampard will captain his country in what is likely to be his final international appearance. “It’s important for every player involved to show pride and stand up in a difficult moment which this certainly is,” said Lampard.
Hodgson will radically change the starting line-up, not, he insists, out of sentiment or planning for the future but to reward the fringe players in Brazil. Ben Foster will definitely start in goal, with Celtic goalkeeper, Fraser Forster, also expected to play some part.
“We are conscious of the fact that the fans are as devastated as we are,” he said. “Anything else other than taking the game extremely seriously is out of the question. I’ve learned how painful it is to build up your hopes and see a lot of good preperation not get us where we wanted. I knew this already but it’s been brought home to me that the World Cup can be unbelievably unforgiving .. and throw people into a realm of despair you don’t know is even possible. It’s been a tough few days. It’s hard to pick yourself up for a game that even if you do well doesn’t serve any purpose in terms of you carrying on. That’s incredibly tough on the players. I’ll learn a lot about them tomorrow.”
Pundits everywhere are blaming the foreign invasion. The Premier League is the most passionately followed in the world, with television figures that every year go through the roof. Yet the national team continues to fall short with only 30 per cent of those in the domestic top flight available to play for England.
The result is that few England players on show in Brazil have ever really experienced the kind of pressure that goes with performing at a World Cup, or any major stage for that matter The Premier League may be a great advert but it does the national team no favours.
Yet that on its own can’t be the reason and is anyway becoming somewhat of a tired argument. Many countries at the World Cup have a fraction of the funding and resources that the English FA enjoys – Costa Rica being a case in point. So does it have something to do with coaching standards? Or maybe it’s just plain lack of heart and being too pampered?
Everyone is talking about Hodgson’s young team peaking for the Euros in two years’ time. Maybe it will but question marks still remain about how the likes of unheralded Costa Rica – who were supposed to have been the whipping boys of England’s group which contained three former world champions – can have reached the knockout stage while the supposed inventors of the game are on the way home.
Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto was respectful enough yesteday not dig the knife further into England but he is clearly relishing the limelight. “This is a special dream,” he said. “Maybe we don’t have the fame of Brazil, Germany or England but everyone in the country lives for football and the whole squad knows exactly what to do.”