Hear we stand, at the outset of another major international football tournament – those glorious events that serve as memory markers to permanently capture a time in your life. There have been great tournaments (96, 98, 02), there have been disappointing tournaments (92, 10) and there have been some tournaments that England didn’t fancy at the time and so skipped (ahem).
For the first time in my life, having qualified for a major tournament, England seem to be entering with a sense of pragmatic realism. Usually there is the ever-increasing optimism, that bubbles over to the point where they have you believing that this year will be the one where we actually go the distance. For Euro 2012 I think you’d be hard pressed to find many England fans who firmly believe their team will be coming home as champions. Trawling the usual sites for expert predictions, the vast majority have England exiting at the quarter final stage or even in the group. Germany, Spain, France, Netherlands and (less so) Denmark, Russia and Italy are all being touted as possible winners.
It’s refreshing to be honest – this way we know that anything positive is a bonus: sure we are not hopeless losers who are going to get thrashed and end up with ‘nil points’ but at the same time we are not a star-studded unbeatable juggernaut destined to let us all down and fail.
England’s preparation for this tournament has been famously disrupted – starting with the stupidity of our star striker and brightest hope in getting himself sent off and banned for the first two games. This was followed up with the Winter resignation of our manager, due to his exasperation at the actions of his employer. Those actions were brought about due to another issue, the looming court case for our erstwhile captain, accused of racially abusing the brother of an until recently key member of our team (who just so happened to be his partner in defence for many years). Once you throw in injuries to key players, plus a new manager with only a few short weeks to get acquainted before the kick off it; becomes painfully clear that the Three Lions are not roaring into this tournament, more stumbling and stuttering like a clapped out old car.
There is a theory that, relieved from the usual crippling weight of expectation, England may outperform. Further to this, the squad now has less of the ‘collection of stars but not a team’ look about it that was so often the source of hope for previous tournaments. Maybe with a more also-ran calibre of player, we might find that they perform more effectively as a team. The truth is though that the expectations are lower for a number of perfectly good reasons, and this is no bad thing. There are plenty of better teams than us who have a far greater chance of lifting the trophy. If England do make it out of their group, great. If they do, they are likely to then come up against Spain at which point the journey will end – fine as well.
I’m not going to get suckered into thinking that all of the above means that we are due to outperform expectation and actually do well (as tempting as it is). It’s perfectly healthy to have realistic expectations, and who knows, if we do OK – play well in our games but not get through – maybe everyone will learn a valuable lesson. Getting behind the team without going overboard, that should always be the way. If, in 2 years or 4 years time, the England team has progressed to a level where we have numerous world class individuals, a settled style, a level of comfort and confidence in our ability; then we can maybe increase the expectation level slightly. If not, no bother.
The bottom line is we are about to gorge ourselves on a feast of football, at which England are just one dish. If that dish turns out to be tastier than we expected then we’ll all be happy…but it’s not the only thing on the menu.