This annual early international intrusion upon embryonic Premier League hostilities is traditionally greeted with all the warmth of a long-forgotten rogue uncle who appears on the doorstep with a suitcase placed neatly beside his feet.
There is no place this week, however, for the apathy which routinely prevails, when England prepare to tackle a pair of September qualifying fixtures. Greg Dyke, the F.A.’s new chairman, has set the necessary tone. Two days after the start of a four month hiatus to the entrancing transfer shenanigans which have come to define this time of year, Dyke used his ‘state of the football nation’ speech to switch the spotlight sharply onto the perennial exposure of our national side’s failings since 1966, when Bobby Moore held aloft the Jules Rimet Trophy.
Much of the chairman’s thinking, and his determination to attend to the key contributory factors towards a series of sub-par tournament performances, – namely, young English players having their development checked by an influx of foreigners into the Premier League, and a paucity of quality coaching in the country – should be applauded.
Dyke’s ultimate target, that of the England team winning the 2022 World Cup in the searing heat of a Middle-Eastern desert is, at best, extremely optimistic and, at worst, entirely disingenuous.
It is when England travel to Kiev this week that events take on monumental significance. Defeat against Ukraine will almost certainly consign Hodgson’s side to contesting a two-legged tie for the right to travel to Brazil in 2014. The worst case scenario, and one that is not beyond the realms of possibility, is that Montenegro could yet pip England to that runners-up berth, and cast our national team to the role of outsiders looking in on what promises to be one of the celebrated football events of the modern day.
That is a prospect that should send a shiver through the spine of any individual who cares for the English game. There is sure to be an avalanche of discussion, written and spoken, ahead of the tournament in South America, which centres on the romanticism of a World Cup finals taking place in Brazil. Samba beats, the Copacabana beach, a throbbing, unrivalled passion for football, and the host country’s perceived status as the game’s spiritual home, will all be writ large as cause for this being the most widely anticipated football extravaganza in living memory.
The idea that England will not be one of the 32 countries involved when, for one month next year, the gaze of the planet lands upon what is our national sport is unpalatable enough.
More pertinent, though, is that such an occurrence would deny a priceless opportunity, to what actually happens to be a distinctly promising group of players, to achieve something rather momentous of their own – or, at the very least, gain essential experience in the sternest of environments.
Dyke’s address drew attention to the scarcity of home-grown players breaking through at Premier League level, and so engendered a consequent assessment of how few of our footballers are involved at the peak of club action – the Champions League.
If that particular competition only continues to evolve in importance and allure, Dyke was correct to point out that a World Cup stirs interest like nothing else. A top-end European clash can attract television audiences in this country which top the ten million mark. When England take to the field in the finals of a biennial major tournament, that figure is doubled.
For all the revolutionary ideas that may be forthcoming, – and conceivably implemented – with the intention of fixing what the former national team defender, Danny Mills, described as the ‘broken’ English game, there is no guaranteeing their success. England’s qualification for Brazil sits in their own hands, and they cannot allow it to slip from their grasp.
Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were at the core of the ‘golden generation’, which was expected to prosper on the European and World Stage in the mid-to-late noughties. That pair, whose inability to click at the heart of their country’s midfield has long been cited as integral to the team’s failings, are now re-united. It is an alliance which, ironically, could be integral to the latest batch of English talent fulfilling its own potential.
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