Nickname: The Three Lions
Schedule: June 14 vs. Italy, June 19 vs. Uruguay, June 24 vs. Costa Rica
World Cup History: Winner (1966), Semifinals (1990), Quarterfinals (1954, 1962, 1970, 1986, 2002, 2006)
Rankings: FIFA (11), SPI (9)
Winning Odds: 25-1
England conquered its island, industrialized and amassed one of history’s greatest territorial and informal commercial empires. Aristocrats, engineers, educators, capitalists and dockhands traversed this network with leather balls in tow. The game that arose on upper crust ball fields in the mid-19th century became the de rigueur sport for the world’s working classes.
The original game was rough and tumble, a Darwinian contest to weed out those best suited to lead men over the trench wall and to boss around dark people. English soccer, at its best and worst, retains much of that spirit. It is fast. It is furious. It emphasizes courage over mental deliberation. For every one Paul Scholes England has produced, there have been thousands of “not that sort of players” flying in with their studs high. Even Scholes enjoyed a good scything now and again.
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Qualifying Form: England struggled, but overcame what should have been a perfunctory UEFA Group H. They were defensively stout (four goals allowed in 10 matches), but often failed to score or exert control. The English were not defeated, but early draws made things hairy for them. Home wins over Montenegro and Poland and a crucial draw away at Ukraine secured a group win and qualification.
Coach: Roy “Woy” Hodgson. The 66-year-old has ample experience at club and international level. Rare for an Englishman, much of that experience has been abroad. He has won eight league titles with multiple Scandanavian teams. He also brought Inter Milan (1997) and Fulham (2010) to the UEFA Cup Final. As an International coach, he qualified Switzerland in 1994 (1st tournament since 1966) and guided them to the Round of 16. He came three points from qualifying Finland for Euro 2008, which would have been Fins’ first major tournament. Hodgson took over for Fabio Capello with England in May 2012, just weeks before Euro 2012. England won its group, but lost to Italy on penalties in the quarterfinals.
Tactics: Hodgson teams play simple, well-organized, defensive-minded soccer. In competitive matches, he has stuck to a 4-2-3-1. Two holding midfielders. Two wingers. A lead striker and an attacking midfielder (Rooney) floating around in space behind him. The English don’t hold the ball very well. Look for them to defend with two solid banks of four and counterattack with pace.
Player to Watch: Wayne Rooney. The Manchester United star terrorized Europe as an 18-year-old, scoring four times in the Euro 2004 group stage. But due to ill-timed injuries and qualification failures, he has not replicated that Three Lions form since. Rooney has been off his best pace for about two years at Manchester United. But, he has played very well for the national team over that same span under Hodgson, amassing 10 goals and three assists in 16 appearances. Rooney has never had the consistency of a Messi or a Ronaldo. But he can perform up to that level.
Squad: This English team is less talented than the 2006 squad loaded with Champions League winners. But they are solid, fit a system and won’t carry the same weight of expectation.
The Terry/Ferdinand/Cole era is over. England are not spectacular at the back, but have experience. Gary Cahill will pair with Phil Jagielka in central defense. Glen Johnson and Leighton Baines will man the two fullback spots. They front Manchester City keeper Joe Hart, capable but prone to the odd gaffe.
Hodgson has resolved the Gerrard/Lampard debate, if only because both are now sober, ball-playing holding midfielders in their twilight. Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere is another central option, but may not be 100 percent fit. So is Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson or James Milner. England have young, exciting attackers such as Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley (all under-20) who could do some damage. What they do not have is a dominant midfield presence or a true stopper who can shut down the dominant midfield presence from another team.
Forward remains a concern. Rooney will slot in behind the lead striker. The in-form partner for him is Daniel Sturridge, who has scored 35 times in his last 49 appearances for Liverpool. But the two have played together up front for about 20 minutes, total.
Group Outlook: Not ideal, but it could be worse. England can beat Uruguay and Italy. They should beat Costa Rica. Finishing either first or second from this group, earns them a beatable Group C opponent to advance to the quarterfinals. They do play their first match in Manaus, though that climate may be an advantage for them against a ponderous Italian team.
An Auspicious Start… England will be based at the swanky Royal Tulip hotel in Rio. The Royal Tulip recently had unsafe butter, salmon and ham seized from its kitchens. The hotel was also fined for not offering free condoms. Though, to be fair, you would not have much use for the latter after eating the former.
Penalties: Penalties are cruel, but they are no lottery. They test mental fortitude. There is where previous iterations of the Three Lions have come up lacking. Penalties eliminated the English in Euro 1996, the 1998 World Cup, Euro 2004, the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2012. Two of those eliminations, 1998 and 2006, were after silly red cards from David Beckham and Wayne Rooney respectively. Again, mental fortitude.
Notable WAG: David Beckham has retired. Chelsea’s stars have had marital troubles. By defeault, Steven Gerrard’s wife Alex is now the dean of English WAGdom. According to Stephen Hawking, the presence or absence of WAGs will have “no bearing on success or failure” at the World Cup.
Arbitrary English Power Rankings: 1. William Shakespeare 2. Winston Churchill 3. Elizabeth I 4. Michael Faraday 5. John Keats
[Photos via Getty]
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