England did everything right, but was it enough for them to win this World Cup?

Soccer news Dec 12, 2022

No Andrea Pirlo dazzling performance would be seen here. Even with Mesut Ozil and Thomas Müller on the field, England was not sliced and diced. In this case, no one was shown the red card. There is none of the usual dread that follows a gunfight. Unless one of the Icelandic players had snagged a ticket, none of them were in Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday night. There was none of the usual second-half decline or midfield breakdown.

So, in a nutshell, there are no convenient scapegoats or effigies to burn. Most people agree that England did well. And that's great. That England did so well is fantastic. For many years, England has been among the best teams in the world. And yet, the end outcome was identical to that accomplished by Roy Hodgson's team in 2012, by three teams coached by Sven-Göran Eriksson, by Diego Maradona's Argentina in 2010, and by Germany in 1994. All of this begs the pointed and perhaps endless question: does any of this matter?

This is a query into the kind of footballing country England now aspires to be. How much more work would it take for England to win one of these competitions? How should we evaluate our progress? In what direction should we aim our hopes?

I speak in the first person because these are issues that should be answered by everyone, not just the players, coaches, execs, and journalists that are a part of the sports industry. There's a school of thought out there that says we can put aside our desire for purging and fresh blood and appreciate a great performance by a great team against somewhat superior opponents this time. This is a step in the right direction. The worlds top eight is a good place to be. This may be sufficient. This may be OK.

For this reason, the French loss was fascinating for many reasons. If you were already leaning toward giving England a pass, you could take advantage of just about every loophole in the book. You're up against some serious competition, the finest in the world. The perfect choice of team members. An ambitious, future-focused system with solid execution. An impressive string of successes led up to the achievement. There were no infractions, preventable gaffes, discordant locker room scenes, or embarrassing off-field incidents. That England had some bad luck with refereeing calls is undeniable. Harry Kane's missed pressure penalty was a true unicorn occurrence, leading to the decisive play.

Here, England checked every box and produced as pleasant a tournament loss as possible. Yet, of course, evaluations and anticipations are never made in isolation. They shape the team's mood and instinctively know how members will respond to victory or defeat. Former England players have described being able to predict public and media outcry during tournament games.

Is it feasible that the sheer idea of a pleasant loss might self-prophesy it on some profoundly unconscious level? To put it another way: how much did England and Gareth Southgate want to win the World Cup? Did they have an absolute must-win as Lionel Messi does? It's one thing to want something, to work for it, to put in your best effort, etc. But should English feelings go beyond pride and dismay? If Southgate's England is trying to win a trophy at whatever cost, they are failing miserably.

There are, however, many more worthy and acceptable goals that a national football team may have—relating to the audience and the public at large—having confidence in oneself and expressing one's individuality—enhancing the value of the trip along the way. For around 95% of the world's countries, the aim is only to challenge, give it all, and keep developing.

The discussion over what will happen to Southgate sums up these feelings. Consider Morocco, who, with a coach they appointed just four months ago, has advanced to the semi-finals of their tournament. Nothing requires a whole cycle of development, education, and agency. In certain cases, it's necessary to lock a group of skilled musicians in a room for four weeks, yell at them, and play like mad.

Who knows, Southgate is the man for the job. Or maybe he isn't. The next stage may be to learn from the lionesses and understand when a mental barrier can only be overcome with assistance from outside the mind. Despite Mark Sampson and Phil Neville's best efforts, it needed a coach who knew what it takes to win, Sarina Wiegman, to lead them over the finish line.

What matters is having a team of players who can make their calls on the field and see an opportunity for a kill when they see it. It's worth mentioning that Carlo Ancelotti, the undisputed master of the knockout round, is France's head coach. Six of them have already played for him in either Paris or Madrid (seven if you include Karim Benzema, originally named before his injury).

In contrast, Pep Guardiola, the king of the process, has an overwhelming influence on the England team. Once again, we saw that dynamic at play: like a Guardiola team, England kept plugging away, certain that the game's delicate balancing act would finally favor them. The English team would likely emerge victorious if the English and French leagues were both 38 games long. However, like Ancelotti, France understands this is a one-and-only-chance performance.

This is an easier choice whether you are a five-time champion like Brazil or a tiny country like Wales. However, for England, whose sense of identity is entangled with many seemingly incompatible themes (colonial history and postcolonial anxiety; nationalism and internationalism; Premier League prosperity and local tribalism), this has frequently been the cause of their perplexity.

You may find all of this too esoteric and pseudo-psychological. In reality, it's the most important question each national sports team has to answer: what do we want?

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