If we agree that nothing in life is predestined, then we can agree that this is even truer in football. While the maxim that anything can happen in a 90 minute match might be well-worn, it remains more accurate then many other oft-repeated “certainties” of the game like the law of the ex – the unwritten rule which states a former player will always return to haunt his old club or that you’re most vulnerable when you have just scored a goal.
It’s true that virtually anything can happen in a football match and what you think may be a dead cert as you sit down for kick off may look laughable come the end. It’s why bookies make so much money from us fans and why statistics and form tables can never quite tell the whole story.
And yet there are times when dead certs do come to pass. One such time was on Sunday evening. England had been dangling over the Euro 2012 precipice, hanging on by their fingernails, when an Italian boot finally stamped hard on those whitening fingers after a tense 120 minutes. The dead cert in question was not so much than England would go out, but rather the feeling that if they were to do it would be on penalties. After all, this is England. It’s always on penalties. Or at least it feels that way.
There was no shame in defeat to an underrated Italian team, but nor was there much pride or glory. England tried – aside from an early 15 minute spell – to out catenaccio the defensive specialists but by using English defensive qualities of blocking, heading and when all else fails panicking ahead of the traditional Italian defensive skills of control and calm. It worked for a long time but often it was more to to do with Italy’s ill luck (they hit the woodwork twice) and poor finishing than anything else. For the most part England were poor, their ball retention was laughably bad at points and their most creative players looked bereft of ideas. Gerrard was too busy being bamboozled by the brilliance of Pirlo (who incidentally is looking more and more like an ageing rocker, I could see him playing rhythm guitar for The Rolling Stones) to make any attacking moves while Ashley Young was again anonymous as he had been all tournament and Rooney cut an often isolated, frustrated figure that caused some of us to flash back to Bloemfontaine in 2010. Andy Carroll showed some decent touches in his cameo but was rarely far enough forward to cause any bother while Walcott barely had a kick.
That England took it all the way to penalties is a perverse justification for their negative outlook; that they should play for them given the nation’s past in such contests and the clear psychological scars that remain seemed odd. What the shootout defeat does, though, is absolve anyone – save the two Ashleys who missed – of blame. No matter how much you have been outplayed, a shootout defeat is “unlucky”. As the years pass memories of Italian chances will fade; what will remain is Glen Johnson’s early scooped shot, a Rooney header over the bar. Then Young smashes against the woodwork from the spot, Cole passes it tamely to Buffon. The Italians score, the Italians win. England are unlucky, England are gallant, England are brave. Nobody will remember England were outplayed.
You could argue it was unfair to expect anything more. Despite what some may tell you (like Harry Redknapp who claimed he would not swap England’s “front six” for Spain’s) this was an England squad of limited means and talent. These are not the “Golden Generation” years under Sven, no longer do England have perhaps half a dozen players one could argue are world class. England now have an ageing Gerrard, a molasses-slow Terry, a hit-and-miss Rooney. Perhaps only Ashley Cole and the still-young, confidence-filled goalkeeper Joe Hart could stake a serious claim to be amongst Europe’s elite. Alongside them are waifs and strays; youngsters who may someday make it (Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jones, Carroll, Henderson, Welbeck, Kelly) and players who can go from brilliant to awful during one phase of play and missed the boat on being judged “world class” years ago (Parker, Young, Lescott, Johnson, Downing). It was churlish really to expect them to overcome Italy, a team who are not the powerhouse of old but have one star in Andrea Pirlo who eclipses everyone in the England squad. The closest England have to Pirlo is the 37-year-old Paul Scholes and it doesn’t appear he will be coming out of international retirement anytime soon. Behind him in the list would be clubmate Michael Carrick, who may not be Pirlo class but at least has the happy habit of passing the ball to someone in the same coloured shirt. He, too, has cast himself voluntarily in the international wilderness. Now 30, don’t expect to see him back in an England shirt either.
It’s fair to say then that England did not deserve to win but perhaps did what they could with limited means. No shame but no glory either, the soothing balm of the penalty excuse will make things easier for England fans and Roy Hodgson as he plots a route to Brazil 2014. It’s the same old problem though: unless England can keep the ball they will lose against the better sides over and over again. It’s the same story at every tournament when basic technical failings cost England. We love it in the harem-scarem mayhem of the Premier League – let’s be honest, mistakes and constant possession turnovers make for a fun watch, but at international level the better sides will punish any errors and England make basic mistakes every few minutes. The worrying thing is that England could not keep the ball when they could call on a midfield of Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes; what chance in Brazil in two years time with potentially Walcott, Henderson, Gerrard (then 34) and Oxlade-Chamberlain? Maybe Roy had better get them practising penalties a hell of a lot more…