England go into 2018 FIFA World Cup with low expectations, a young squad, and a meaningful sense of being itself. The scene is set for the Three Lions to roar in Russia
London: Only a fool would ever pick England to win this or indeed any other tournament. The English are one of the greatest underperformers in international football. This is not just popular wisdom but statistical fact. Sort of. When auditors PwC put together their The PwC World Cup Index: what can the dismal science tell us about the beautiful game? report four years ago, they developed a model to not just predict the 2014 tournament, but also look back at previous tournaments.
Their model, which looked at metrics such as registered football players, attendance at club matches, form at the time of the tournament, and so on, was run for past editions. They discovered that England were among the worst under-performers: “England’s reputation among some as perennial underachievers is somewhat justified in our model. They have collected 26 fewer World Cup points than estimated, which is equivalent to an additional eight wins and two draws over the course of 19 tournaments."
England’s Jordan Pickford in action during a friendly tie against Nigeria at the Webley Stadium, in London on 2 June. Photo: David Klein/Reuters
But statistical underperformers must eventually perform. And in Russia 2018, England has a unique opportunity to make up for its largely dismal string of World Cup performances since that triumph at home in 1966.
First, this is an England squad lancing in Russia with very little World Cup baggage. Manager Gareth Southgate’s squad is the third youngest at the World Cup with an average age of just over 26 years. Only France and Nigeria have younger squads.
The team also has little experience of the relentless pressure and agonising expectation that come with wearing the three lions jersey.
The average member of the 23-man England squad only has 20 caps. This is against a tournament average of 34 caps per player.
Key debutants in the England side include the excellent Trent-Alexander Arnold and goalkeeper Nick Pope.
All of which means that England go into the tournament with a large squad of exciting young players who have an opportunity to shrug off the memories of the past and thus go on to meet expectations or perhaps, even, surpass them.
Second, many of these players are well-versed with the relentless crucible of cruelty that is English media hysteria.
Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford have all, in their relatively young careers, been subject to the senseless self-harm that is the English footballing media. If anything, Southgate will hope that the attitudes back home—and expectations are anything but high—will propel the team onwards. Then there is the state of England itself—a country seemingly in a state of shock as it seeks to come to terms with the Brexit referendum and a politics that increasingly veers towards self-destructive parody.
Much like Germans rediscovered what it is to be patriotic in the 2006 tournament, England is ripe for an opportunity to be English that is not loaded with politics, policy and tribalism.
So much so that Southgate’s squad is perhaps uniquely placed to win support from every point in the political spectrum. While people on the right will hope a good campaign upholds the English flag and the country’s capacity to stand on its own feet, people on the other end may equally find reason to rally behind this team, all relentlessly subject to torment at the hands of the tabloids.
England go into the World Cup with low expectations, a young squad, a nation yearning for a positive, meaningful sense of being itself, and a history of underperforming by almost any metric. It goes into a tournament with few clear favourites.
Germany and Brazil are both perennial punts, but their squads in Russia this year are anything but infallible.
Argentina’s performance might well depend on a certain player’s ability to do it himself and Spain have just fired their manager. The scene is set for the Three Lions to roar in Russia.