If a tournament doesn’t include the U.S., Arsenal or my daughter’s old U-9 juggernaut The Mighty Macarenas, England has always been my team. But as much as I’ll be rooting for the Three Lions, they have as much chance of lifting the Cup as I do being named Tottenham Hotspur's Man of the Year.
Almost everyone on the planet Earth knows this. The problem is, the tiny handful of people who don’t know it are the English players and their fans. How else to explain that a team revolving around Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and the ghost of Wayne Rooney has been given more favorable odds (12-1) by one London bookie than France, Italy and Portugal. Have they learned nothing from the past 46 years of pain in international tournaments?
Of course, this is nothing new. Consider the back-page headline on the always reliable Sun the day after the groups for the 2010 World Cup were announced. It read:
Anyone remember the staggering ease with which mighty England swept aside this first-round roadkill on its way to being embarrassed by Germany in the knockout stage? The good news is that England can hardly fare any worse in the Ukraine and Poland than it did two years ago in South Africa, where its spectacular tabloid-friendly flameout was second only to the fiasco in the France camp. (In the end, the Patrice Evra-led training boycott narrowly eclipsed John Terry's failed locker room mutiny as the most risible moment of the tournament. And somehow Evra and Terry are still both respected internationals instead of disgraced fodder for county fair dunk tanks.)
How fitting then that the same two teams are paired in this year's Euro Group of Dysfunction and play each other in the opening game. The French, however, seem to have rediscovered their attacking brio while England enters the tournament in such a disheveled state that only its most blinkered fans are capable of latching onto that tidal wave of delusional optimism that has carried them since 1966. There's a reason for this lowering of expectations. Actually, there are 10 of them.
1. History isn’t on its side...
In the half-dozen tournaments for which it has qualified since 1980, England has won six matches out of 21 in open play. In only two, 1996 and 2004, has it gone beyond the group stage. 12-1, my Arsenal.
2. …And neither are Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard and Gary Cahill
It has become an English tradition to lose key players just before big tournaments (Beckham in 2010, Rooney in 2006, etc.) but never before have three potential starters been ruled out in the space of one week.
Cahill was the latest victim of the injury epidemic after suffering a double fracture of his jaw following a collision with Joe Hart during Saturday’s “friendly” with Belgium. The Chelsea defender will be replaced by Liverpool reserve right back Martin Kelly, who earned his first cap only last week with a late cameo against Norway. Given the loss of so many experienced players, it’s only natural to wonder why newly minted England boss Roy Hodgson didn’t call on old warhorse Rio Ferdinand to fill the centerback void.
Two words: John Terry. It seems that the Chelsea captain’s comfort level supersedes all tactical concerns and it’s no secret that Terry wouldn't have been overjoyed at the prospect of being reunited with Anton Ferdinand's older brother in the center of the defense. Something about an upcoming trial that Terry would rather forget during the tournament.
That said, all these injuries do have an upside for Hodgson: They provide him with a neat excuse when England finally crashes out. You know, “if Lampard had been fit, he would have buried the 88th minute penalty that Stewart Downing inexplicably missed and we would have beaten Spain in the final instead of losing in extra time."
3. Bad form (which follows dysfunction)
Besides a surprising 1-0 win over World/Euro champions Spain last November, when was the last time the Three Lions dominated a country that wasn't the setting for a Sacha Baron Cohen movie? Aside from two romps over Bulgaria in Euro qualifying, England's results since the 2010 World Cup read well enough -- 10 wins, four draws, two defeats -- but the caliber of opponents (just two games against teams in FIFA's Top 15) and abject nature of many performances (1-0 vs. Wales, 0-0 vs. Montenegro, 1-1 vs. Ghana, 1-0 vs. Sweden) make it look every bit like a mid-table EPL side. And speaking of which…
4. England's core is made up of players from the Prem's eighth place team
Spare a thought for Jamie Carragher, Jay Spearing and Jonjo Shelvey, the three Englishmen at Liverpool who didn’t bag a free trip to Polkraine. With the addition of Kelly, the squad now boasts a half dozen Reds: Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing, Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson. (To put that sextet in context, there are more Reds representing England than Bundesliga champion Borussia Dortmund players on the German squad or La Liga winner Real Madrid heroes suiting up for Spain this summer.)
Did Hodgson feel as if he'd been cheated out of working with many of these overpriced recruits during his unhappy tenure at Anfield? Or was he impressed by how well they responded to King Kenny as Liverpool stumbled to their worst league finish since Jonjo Shelvey was two years old?
5. The Tao of Uncle Roy
By all accounts, Hodgson is an intelligent, affable chap. He speaks five languages (five more than the media’s presumptive choice for his job, Harry Redknapp), is well-read (John Updike, Martin Amis, Richard Ford, Eric Cantona) and looks great in a cardigan. So presumably Hodgson had his eyes open when he accepted the poisoned chalice that is the England position. But then again, the former West Brom manager is prone to the odd face palm so maybe he didn’t clearly see the shocking paucity of striking talent, smooth-passing midfielders and cool-headed defenders available to him. Hey, it’s just like being back at the Hawthorns!
To be fair, the chaotic preparations of the past month didn’t allow him to create a style of play like, say, the Germans, Dutch or Spanish have -- for starters, that requires players who can string three passes together -- and so Hodgson’s approach is as mind-numbingly pragmatic as it gets: focus on structure and organization and cobble together a team that is difficult to break down just as he did at Albion and Fulham, his last two stops on the managerial carousel.
Judging by England’s lackluster victories over Norway and Belgium in last week’s Euro tuneups, the team has bought into Hodgson’s philosophy, which is a lot closer on the flair-o-meter to Greece of 2004 than to Brazil of 1970. Accept the fact that the Three Lions will play tedious soccer with the goal of grinding out scrappy, well-defended 1-0 results and you’ll be in less psychological pain when you watch them.
6. England is not Chelsea.
Repeat after me: If Chelsea can win the Champions League, then anything is possible.
True, but it’s doubtful that you can reprise fairytale endings twice within a month and in capturing the CL, Chelsea exhausted a lifetime's worth of magic dust from the soccer gods. But desperate times call for desperate measures and clearly Hodgson didn't make Gary Neville an assistant coach because of the former United defender's popularity among Scousers (or anyone else who doesn’t like ferret-faced weasels). If you listened to Neville’s commentary of the CL final, you know he’s a big believer in things like fate and destiny. Who can forget his endless yelping about how Chelsea's victory over Bayern was "in the stars?" Maybe he can infuse that same astrological spirit in the England squad.
So what are the chances of an English team beating a German team in a penalty shootout this time around? Nicht gut because in order to even play Die Mannschaft, the Three Lions have to first get out of their group and that isn't a gimme because...
7. No Wayne, Yes Pain
Despite all the brave talk about how they have enough attacking resources to cope without Wayne Rooney against France and Sweden, the Three Lions will desperately miss not just Wazza’s cold-blooded finishing but the fear factor his presence in an England shirt represents.
Instead, the focal point of their attack will be a player who had about 180 decent minutes in the last month of the season but was a stumbling object of derision for the rest of the campaign. In choosing to anoint Andy "Hit It To The Big Man" Carroll as his go-to goal guy, Hodgson seems to be espousing a more throwback style than England played under Fabio Capello, who at least made a pretense of things like ball possession and passing movements. As Roy would say, you can’t go wrong if you hoof it long. Welcome to England, 2012.
8. England's central midfield has as much creativity as a Lana Del Rey album
It doesn't take a forensic scientist -- or even Egil Olsen -- to tell us that the Three Lions lack a creative linchpin between attack and defense but the Norway manager obliged nonetheless after his team lost a meaningless 1-0 exhibition to England last week. "You need creative players who can do the spectacular extra things," offered Olsen, "and I didn't see too much of that against us."
Olsen is too much of a diplomat to come out and say that England's midfield is as prosaic and boring as it’s been since Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, but I'm not. In James Milner, Scott Parker and Jordan Henderson, Hodgson has selected a trio of reductive players who do the opposite of create -- stifle, destroy, block shots and try their best not to get sent off. Parker, at least, has a distinctive talent, having mastered the art of the 180-degree pirouette that looks Zidane-like until you realize he's just doing it to pass the ball back to a defender. To Hodgson's credit, he tried (and failed) to lure the ageless maestro Paul Scholes out of international retirement and then refused to bow to Michael “I either start or go on vacation” Carrick's diva ultimatum.
That leaves Gerrard to dictate the tempo in midfield. I’ve got nothing against Stevie G. Or at least the explosive and inspirational Stevie G who dragged Liverpool to victory in the Miracle of Istanbul. But that was six years ago and Gerrard’s once defense-shredding long-range diagonal passes now seem more hopeful than incisive, his fierce challenges have gotten increasingly reckless and his powerful drives often trouble fans in Row Z more than the opposing goalkeeper. Hodgson gave Gerrard the cursed England armband in the hope that he would impose his once commanding authority on the field. More likely, he will exert his influence on the music playlist in the dressing room, ensuring the Three Lions a month of listening to Phil Collins. That in itself should cause people to question Hodgson’s judgment.
9. England is no longer the leader in WAG-age
There was a time -- and it seems like only one obscene Victoria Beckham shopping spree ago -- when England's wives and girlfriends were the undisputed tournament-distracting champions of the world. Now, they're not even in the Euro top shelf.
With their spiritual talisman Posh Spice reduced to swanning about L.A.'s tony nightlife scene and Hodgson choosing to leave Peter Crouch at home (the Stoke striker always had a good touch for a big man, as evidenced by his wife/lingerie model Abbey Clancy cavorting in SI's swimsuit issue in nothing but body paint), England's Queen Wag is Colleen Rooney who is overmatched in the paparazzi sweepstakes by the likes of Holland's Sylvie van der Vaart, France's Charlene "Mrs. Gael Clichy" Suric or Spain's Sara Carbonero, the sultry TV reporter who planted a big wet kiss on her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Iker Casillas after Spain won the 2010 World Cup.
With Ms. Rooney’s hubby banned for the first two games, the burning question among England WAGologists is who will Colleen pass the Louboutins to? The early money is on Kaya Hall, the girlfriend of defender Phil Jones, who so far has managed to fend off the advances of …
10. This guy