This is the phoney-war period before the World Cup, the last couple of friendlies are about to commence and in the absence of actual football to talk about side issues such as Raheem Sterling’s tattoos are being blown up into big news. ’Twas ever thus, though admittedly body-art representations of assault rifles are something new, but what is conspicuously absent from the buildup this time is the old fashioned “England expects” note of patriotic fervour.
Good riddance, many might say, since over the years the media has been noticeably more enthusiastic than the various captains involved to pose with the flag of St George on the eve of a tournament. It would be encouraging to think the country has finally grown out of such cliched insularity, or belatedly realised that the rest of the world finds our endless optimism amusing, though the truth is rather more painful.
England has simply learned not to expect very much any more. We are now a country who could not hold on to a one-goal lead against Iceland. The team that went to Brazil for the last World Cup and crashed out before the group stage had concluded. England have not won a knockout match at a World Cup since beating Ecuador in Stuttgart in 2006, so long ago that Antonio Valencia had not yet signed for Wigan Athletic, never mind Manchester United.
Looking back it is easy to form the conclusion that England have lost the knack of playing well in tournaments, or that players are too exhausted by the Premier League season to be at their best in summer. If history tells us anything, it is that England are getting worse at performing on the world stage, so it is probably wise not to build up hopes that will quickly be dashed. There are even people suggesting that England ought to simply use this World Cup as a practice run for the next one. The squad is so young it will still be more or less intact in four years, the argument runs, so rather than burdening the players with unnecessary hope and expectation why not allow them a free hit this time in order that they might hit the ground running in Qatar.
Refreshingly, this defeatist notion is being rejected by the players themselves. Give us a chance to show what we can do is the common refrain emerging from press conferences. We are a new squad with a new manager and we believe we have an opportunity to impress.
This has got to be the right attitude for several reasons, the first being that conditions in Qatar, where temperatures will be very high, are unlikely to suit English players as much as conditions in Russia. The second is that while qualification for the 2022 World Cup should not prove too great a hurdle, England as yet have no idea who they will find in their group or how difficult progress might be. Whereas at the moment they know they are in a group with Panama, Tunisia and Belgium, and though the last might sound a little scary, depending on points and performances from the first two games it need not be a win or bust situation.
Belgium seem to have a remarkable generation of players at the moment, though their tournament record is not that impressive. Roberto Martínez is untried as a tournament manager, having got the job only because Marc Wilmots was dismissed two years ago after Belgium were knocked out of Euro 2016 by Wales. England do not find themselves in a group of death, to put it mildly, and if they can make it out of Group G the only opponents it is possible to face will be Poland, Colombia, Senegal or Japan. England are perfectly capable of losing to any of those sides, of course (after the last couple of tournaments nothing can be taken for granted) though any self-respecting side ought to view this draw as a possible route to the quarter-finals rather than something too daunting for a young and inexperienced group to take on.
Yet the main reason for urging the present squad to go for broke is because the fallow year argument is just the negative flip-side of the old, discredited, golden generation theory. What World Cup experience has tended to show is that it does not matter how many great players you have, or think you have. What is more important is how well they gel as a team and how confidently they get to grips with the tournament.
Just as England never recovered from a bad start four years ago, a positive result early on – maybe in the first game, maybe as early as the upcoming friendlies against Nigeria and Costa Rica – can help generate the sort of momentum that enables a team to grow in a tournament. You do need good players, you will not get far without them, but you also need confidence and something best described as stickability or tournament savvy.
Germany are the most obvious example of a team with all three attributes, because the more they succeed in tournaments the more confident and self-assured they become. Contrary to popular supposition this is not a uniquely German thing. England played with the self-belief one would expect of holders in 1970 and briefly gave a tidy account of themselves in 1998 as they built on the feelgood factor from Euro 96. If their most impressive post-1966 showing was in reaching the semi-final in 1990, when confidence and composure were found along the way after an unpromising start, at least it shows anything can be done.
Players such as Sterling, Kyle Walker, Harry Kane and Dele Alli are confident at the moment after good club seasons, and looking forward to delivering on a bigger stage. Their time has come. Not to bestride the world, perhaps, although somebody has to. Just to do themselves justice, play without fear and show the world how good they are.