LONDON – I have rarely been so pessimistic about the future of the England national team.
Roy Hodgson and the squad returned from Brazil on Wednesday after more empty promises, another broken dream, in this case the worst record at a World Cup in modern history.
Defeats by Italy and Uruguay plus a goal-less draw against Costa Rica and that was that. Bottom of Group D and not ahead for a single minute in any of the three games. England didn’t even need to lose a penalty shootout this time. It is eight years since England scored more than one goal at a World Cup.
The squad leaves behind a wonderful World Cup having been bit part players in the football fiesta. Brazil 2014 has lowered the expectations of a nation to a level where people are no longer particularly angry about the national team’s failure. They are just indifferent now. Even the criticism by the media was generally muted.
Not a single flag-waving England fan was at Manchester airport to greet or even jeer the squad upon its return from Brazil.
Apathy rules, OK?
No one thought England would win the World Cup, but to finish bottom of a group containing Costa Rica was not on any nightmare schedule.
Yet according to Hodgson, England was not outclassed or outplayed, it just was not that fortunate.
Greg Dyke, the Football Association chairman, confirmed Hodgson would see out the last two years of his contract and a Euro 2016 qualification campaign, where the top two go through, containing Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino should be negotiated without too many problems.
Hodgson tried to convince us, unsuccessfully in the main, that the future holds much promise.
Of his first-choice team in Brazil, Joe Hart is a steady goalkeeper and not a major worry; right-back Glen Johnson is almost 30 and has too many weaknesses at this level, left-back Leighton Baines, will be 30 later this year and has found the step up to competitive international football challenging; at center-back Gary Cahill, 28, needs someone better and younger alongside him than Phil Jagielka, who will soon be 32.
In midfield, Steven Gerrard, at 34 is considering his international future after 114 appearances. He does not want to bow out on such a low point and would like to beat the record of David Beckham (115) and Peter Shilton (125), “but I have to look at the bigger picture with Liverpool in the Champions League next season,” Gerrard said.
Jordan Henderson played alongside Gerrard as the defensive midfield shield in front of the back-four. At 24, the Liverpool player has time on his side though his passing lacks penetration.
Raheem Sterling shows immense promise and will be persisted with. Danny Welbeck’s work ethic cannot be doubted, though he is gaining a reputation as a non-scoring striker which, for all his critics, cannot be leveled at Wayne Rooney, the favorite to succeed Gerrard as captain.
Daniel Sturridge will retain his place at the main striker and along with Hart, Cahill, Sterling and Rooney should be the backbone of the next England side, but of the next generation only Everton’s Ross Barkley looked as if he could become a regular.
Of course, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were injured though apart from the Arsenal pair the other candidates have too many question marks.
Jack Wilshere still seems affected, either mentally or physically, by a long-standing ankle injury; Adam Lallana has not made the impact expected; at 18, Luke Shaw must improve his first touch which he will no doubt manage; Chris Smalling and Phil Jones do not look England class; John Stones (Everton) and Jon Flanagan (Liverpool) are the two most promising defenders, but the Under-21 cupboard is thin. The old guard’s replacements are not obvious.
Apart from leaving Ashley Cole at home, few would argue with Hodgson’s squad for Brazil. His tactics, formations and substitutions have drawn criticism at a tournament where second-half changes have proved to be pivotal. England generally swapped like for like.
“We will all sit down together before we start our next campaign to ask what did we learn from the World Cup, what did we learn about our players, what did we learn about the way we want to play?” said Hodgson. “What do we think we can push forward and if we made any glaring mistakes then what can we do to make sure we don’t make them again?”
England is always going to be a great side at the next finals, but when it gets there we see the same problems. And the same promise is made again.
More immediately, the Football Association’s marketing department has the mother of all sales challenges for the friendly against Norway at Wembley in September.
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WHAT LUIS SUAREZ did to Giorgio Chiellini was unforgivable. The Liverpool striker has become a serial biter and to do it on the biggest stage of all was inviting trouble.
A nine-game international ban is absolutely correct for such a heinous act, but for FIFA to also punish Liverpool by banning Suarez for four months is disproportionate. It smacks of bully-boy tactics by FIFA, which has punished Liverpool for the actions of one of its players while playing for Uruguay.
Yes, it was the third time Suarez has bitten an opponent, but the two previous crimes were performed while on club duty. They should not have affected FIFA’s judgment though this seems to have been the case.
My dilemma is how biting is punished compared with leg-breaking tackles or elbows that break cheekbones. While legs and arms are part of football, teeth are not, though Chiellini was not injured and played on.
Many times we have seen players go over the top on an opponent in a manner that makes the dividing line between intent and mistiming difficult to assess.
Biting, along with spitting, is as low as it gets. Suarez deserved the nine-match international ban; the £66,000 fine is an irrelevance in these days of multi-millionaire footballers; but for Liverpool to have its leading striker unavailable until the end of October, a total of 13 games in all — he cannot even train with the rest of the squad — is to punish an innocent party.
A 22-game suspension for an admittedly despicable act, but one which did not injure the opponent, is three times more than the previous longest World Cup ban, eight matches, handed to Italy’s Mauro Tassotti for the elbow that broke the nose of Spain’s Luis Enrique in 1994.
But when you have racially abused an opponent and bitten three more you cannot expect any sympathy. As Suarez starts his spell of solitary confinement he can reflect that he has now been banned for 34 games since 2010 without receiving a single red card.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.