DONETSK, Ukraine – A French reporter directing a question at Roy Hodgson got straight to the point Sunday: Is England a great football nation or not?
Despite housing arguably the best league on the planet and taking into account the country’s fascination with the Beautiful Game, it was a fair query. The football world knows that England hasn’t won a major tournament – or even reached a final – since 1966 (and even then it was on home soil). And if not a laughingstock, England was certainly mocked when it failed to qualify for Euro 2008.
“Well, how far do you want me to go back in time?” the England manager asked.
“1966,” the reporter said.
“I can go back further,” Hodgson replied. “I think we started professional football in the 1860s, maybe the 1870s. During the centuries I don’t think we can be accused of not being a very serious and top football nation. (As for 1966), we’re all very, very much aware of that. You didn’t need to remind me because that’s crossed my mind. How good we are as a nation, how good we’ll be, will always be decided on the field.”
First impressions at Euro 2012 come Monday in what’s expected to be a baking hot Donetsk when England battles a French side unbeaten in 21 games.
Even with its wobbles at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup – where the team infamously revolted against the coaching staff – at least France can say it’s won a World Cup and European Championship since its current internationals were born.
With Wayne Rooney suspended for England’s two most important games in the group stage, the vital trio of Gary Cahill, Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard ruled out through injury and Hodgson’s lack of time to shape the squad, call it a surprise if England wins. The chatter indicates that England’s players are gunning for all three points -- but won’t be disappointed with a draw.
“I suppose apart from that, things are looking quite good, really,” Hodgson said, injecting more humor into the mandatory pre-match press conference at the Donbass Arena. “It’s a stern challenge. We are facing a team in excellent form and 21 matches unbeaten at any level, let alone at international level, is a fine achievement. But I think when you come to the European Championships or World Cups, to some extent, having good or bad form isn’t necessarily going to be decisive.”
French manager Laurent Blanc hopes that’s not the case.
France waited until late in qualifying to book its spot in Poland and Ukraine but has stepped on the gas since: a 2-1 win against Germany – in Germany – in February followed by victories against Iceland, Estonia and Serbia in the past two weeks. His players have spoken this week about how tight they are, with Blanc, on France’s double winning teams in 1998 and 2000, deserving much of the credit.
“We stored up a lot of confidence recently,” Blanc said. “These friendly games have also been important in terms of individuals. Certain players have gained in confidence, and that’s great for the squad.”
He had to be referring to winger Franck Ribery, now back in the good books with French fans and whose partnership with striker Karim Benzema is bound to trouble England’s back four. Despite Hodgson’s statement that all his players were fit, questions surround John Terry’s fitness. Terry’s potential partnership with Joleon Lescott in the center of defense won’t inspire an abundance of confidence for Three Lions backers.
But then, France has issues in the center of defense, too – ones that Blanc has openly discussed. For now he’ll likely start with the familiar pair of Adil Rami and the oft-derided Philippe Mexes. Laurent Koscielny plays against or alongside most of England’s team on club duty with Arsenal, so it’s a little surprising that he’s not being given more of a look.
In the absence of Rooney, Hodgson’s options up front possess different attributes: Towering target man Andy Carroll or the silkier, quicker Danny Welbeck. He’ll pick one, not both.
“They’re two different players,” said French captain Hugo Lloris, a man with hands as safe as those belonging to England’s Joe Hart. “They have their own qualities. Carroll is good in the air and Welbeck is good at getting into spaces high up on the pitch.”
Ashley Young, though, is England’s danger man.
Hodgson downplayed the conditions for the 7 p.m. local time kickoff and presumably felt France won’t benefit from having set up shop – with all its fancy ice jackets – in Donetsk.
“In an earlier game it plays a slightly bigger role than in the later game,” Hodgson said. “The bottom line when you play in conditions, when conditions are being discussed, is that it’s the same for both. It’s important we don’t put too much emphasis on the conditions.”
The emphasis, he said, would be on France and attempting to end its imposing, unblemished sequence.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.