Is Football finally coming home?
Julian Bovill discusses whether Gareth Southgate can guide England to glory at next summer’s World Cup.
The groups for next summer’s World Cup, to be held in Russia, have been announced. England, the only representative from the home nations, have been pitted against Tunisia, Panama and Belgium.
It is the first time that England will have played Panama at a major tournament, having beaten Tunisia in ’98 with a side featuring a young Gareth Southgate. England’s fixture against Belgium also has a feeling of a rematch after England famously knocked out Belgium at the 1990 finals, with David Platt scoring a superb volley with the final kick of the game to crush Belgian hearts. With minnows Tunisia and Panama in their group, England and Belgium look set to compete for the two qualifying spots, making their fixture – in the final round of group stage matches on the 28th June – ever more mouth-watering.
That David Platt goal
Russia 2018 will mark Tunisia’s fifth World Cup appearance, whilst it will be Panama’s first appearance at football’s premier competition. Belgium, who did not qualify for either the 2006 or 2010 finals, are seen as having a significant chance at lifting the main prize. Their current side has been labelled as the ‘golden generation’ by many in their national press, and, off the back of an underwhelming 2014 performance in Brazil, they will be hoping to improve their final standing.
Other notable groups include Group B, which includes Portugal, the reigning European champions, and Spain, many people’s early favourites. France is another nation who look set to go far with a fantastic group of young players, containing the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele. They find themselves in a group with potential dark horses Denmark, who saw off the Republic of Ireland to get to Russia. Germany, the reigning world champions see themselves in a relatively simple looking group, facing Mexico, Sweden and 2002 semi-finalists Korea. Argentina and Brazil, usually South America’s best hopes, see themselves in groups with Iceland – qualifying to the World Cup for the first time – and Costa Rica, respectively. Iceland famously beat England at Euro 2016 while Costa Rica nipped England to a qualification spot at the 2014 World Cup.
What can England hope to achieve at these finals? Well, it is certainly not a clear picture. There was a certain sense of optimism going into the last two tournaments, but through some pretty shambolic performances, most notably against Iceland, that optimism soon evaporated. It does not seem likely that that hopefulness will return for these finals: the performances in the qualifiers bore wins, but they were stodgy and boring. A long way from the free flowing and exciting football played by nations such as Germany and France. Quite frankly, countries such as Brazil and Argentina simply have better squads and more experience than this current crop of English players do. Realistically, England should be looking for a first knockout round win, first and foremost, considering that has not been achieved since 2006. Casting their eyes towards the greater prize may prove too great a distraction. Martin Glenn’s assertion that Gareth Southgate ‘will not be sacked irrespective of England’s performance in Russia’ rather sums up England’s hopes.
By Julian Bovill