GEOFF Hurst was a national hero when he scored a hat-trick in England’s 1966 final victory but he did his country no favours when he drew the former champions in one of the toughest 2014 World Cup groups.
With three balls already drawn and five to go in the pot containing the remaining European teams, Hurst pulled out England for the one vacant position in Group D to set up their hardest campaign for years. Acknowledging the irony last night after the draw, Hurst himself tweeted: “I hope they let me back in the country!”
Roy Hodgson’s side will face South American champions and twice World Cup winners Uruguay, four-times winners Italy and unpredictable Costa Rica at the finals in Brazil. To add more spice to the mix England’s opening game will be against Italy in Manaus in the humidity of the Amazon jungle on 14 June.
Hodgson’s men must also contend with Uruguay’s red-hot striker Luis Suarez, top scorer in the Premier League this season with 13 goals for Liverpool.
FA chairman Greg Dyke was caught by TV cameras yesterday making a throat-slitting gesture, implying that England had been drawn in a ‘group of death’.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli echoed Dyke’s message with his choice of words. “It will be very tough indeed for all of us,” said Prandelli. “It does not matter that we beat England in the Euros last year. This is different, everything will be different, the heat will be different, but that is the World Cup. It means that one former world champion will go out and my job is to make sure it is not Italy.”
Hodgson explained earlier this week that the one venue he would rather avoid was Manaus, prompting an angry response from mayor Arthur Virgilio who said the England team would not be welcomed in the city.
Both backtracked after the draw was made. Hodgson said he was happy to play anywhere and that the Amazonian venue was not a particular problem as they were facing another European team there. Virgilio said his city would be gracious hosts.
“With Uruguay and Italy we have almost two top seeds in the group,” added Hodgson. “As the draw progressed I realised there were not too many easy groups but although this one is harder than most at least it is the only one that does not involve a lot of travelling. Our other two games against Uruguay and Costa Rica in Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte are not too far from our base in Rio de Janeiro.”
One of England’s famous defeats came in Belo Horizonte at the 1950 World Cup when they lost 1-0 to the United States who, like Costa Rica, come from the CONCACAF region. Those who believe in omens might think that is a sign Hodgson’s team will not progress.
England have never beaten Uruguay or Italy in five attempts competitively. They last faced Uruguay in the group stages of the World Cup in 1966 when former West Ham United striker Hurst helped them win the trophy with his hat-trick in the 4-2 victory over West Germany in the final on home soil at Wembley.
England should show improvements from Euro 2012. Players such as Jack Wilshere, Andros Townsend, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have all become senior squad regulars, and the FA is leaving little to chance in terms of sports science with performance and fitness specialists and psychologists being hired in the build-up to the tournament.
Wilshere for one made his feelings clear on Twitter, stating: “Tough group...but so what? If we want to win it we will have to play the best teams anyway!!’’
Defiant words – but that is the sort of attitude that England will need if they are to prove that Group D does not stand for Death.
With the exception of Group D, the convoluted draw produced a set of groups in which most of the big guns will fancy their chances of reaching the knockout stages.
Spain and Netherlands, who met in the 2010 final, will have to be well prepared to see off Chile and Australia in Group B.
Host nation Brazil will kick off the tournament against Croatia in Sao Paulo on 12 June and the favourites should be relatively happy with a Group A also containing Mexico and Cameroon as they seek their sixth title.
“We ended up in a strong group, one that gives you goose bumps,” said Brazil captain Thiago Silva. “It’s very difficult but we’re ready.”
Germany will come face-to-face with their former striker and coach Jurgen Klinsmann, now in charge of the United States, with Portugal and Ghana completing the Group G line-up. “Of course, a special moment for me to play against Germany but we beat them in a friendly this year and once you get on the pitch they are the just the opponent,” said Klinsmann, who won the World Cup as a player in 1990.
France, who qualified via the play-offs, will be pleased with a Group E placing alongside Ecuador, Switzerland and Honduras.
Bosnia, the only one of the 32 teams taking part in their first World Cup finals, will have a dream start to their adventure as they kick off against Argentina in the Maracana before facing Iran and Nigeria.
Fancied Belgium head up Group H alongside Algeria, Russia and South Korea while Group C, containing Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan, looks the toughest to predict. The final is in Rio on 13 July.
THE DRAW IN FULL
Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA
Belgium, Algeria, Russia, Korea Republic