By Jay Mwamba
England: Group F
Just over a year ago England lay near the bottom of World Cup qualifying Group 9, a demoralized lot, without a manager and staring at the possibility of a fourth missed finals in eight campaigns after a dismal start to the Japan/Korea ’02 race in Europe.
Enter Sven Goran Eriksson, a suave and savvy manager with a long list of coaching successes in his native Sweden and Italy.
England, under the first foreign minder in their proud history, responded impressively, winning their next five qualifiers, including a 5-1 demolition of old rivals Germany in Munich, to top Group 9 and book passage to the Far East.
On the basis of this sudden resurgence, Eriksson’s glittering coaching legacy, and possibly the best young crop of players in any national team today, the English rank among the top five contenders for Japan/Korea ’02.
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On paper, at least, you probably have to go back to the World Cup-winning 1966 squad with names like goalkeeper Gordan Banks, the great Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, and the legendary Bobby Charlton to find an England side with more promise.
Like most teams of the British Isles, the English are always tenacious and hard to beat. They have now added to their attributes some bona fide world-class talent as in skipper David Beckham, the terrier-like forward Michael Owen, and his ex-Liverpool striking partner Robbie Fowler.
Eriksson has other youngsters on the periphery of greatness. Among these are Leeds United center half Rio Ferdinard, the world’s most expensive defender; Liverpool linkman Steven Gerrard, Bayern Munich’s Canadian-bred midfielder Owen Hargreaves, and Emile Heskey, the bulldozing forward built like a heavyweight boxer. And for leadership, there’s the 6-feet-4 veteran goalie David Seaman.
These and other players at Eriksson’s beck and call, no doubt make England an attractive side, and one capable of going far in the 32-nation finals should its key men avoid injury.
Under the Swede’s guidance, the English have added a continental touch to their game to go with their natural hard-running instincts and pressing game. Possession is much improved and there’s a keener tactical awareness.
Although Owen, the 22-year-old “Wonder Boy,” is widely regarded as England’s most dangerous player with his blistering pace and lethal finishing, Eriksson’s early success with the squad has focused on its versatility in creating and taking chances.
Beckham for one has developed into such a dead-ball specialist with his fabled right foot that free kicks outside an opponent’s box amount to putative penalties for the 26-year-old glamour boy of English football.
Heskey, whose job is to unsettle defenses for Owen, is a tower of strength in the air, and Gerrard, as he showed in the Munich rout of Germany, has a good eye for goal.
For long time followers of the English game, the continental flair and variety in attack is what modern football’s pioneers’ have always lacked.
But even then, other challenges remain if England are to repeat their 1966 championship success. Ironically, the biggest one may be breaking a jinx of sorts against their coach’s home country in their Group F opener in Saitama, Japan, on June 2.
It’s been some 30 years since the English last triumphed over a Swedish team and there would be no better opportunity than June 2 to end this hoodoo if they are to advance from the much touted “Group of Death.”
Even then, that would hardly be half the job. Archrivals Argentina, the bane of English squads at recent World Cups follow five days later in Sapporo.
The only significant English victory over the reviled Argies since Geoff Hurst’s strike decided their controversial quarterfinal clash in 1966 came in the Falklands War in 1982.
On the pitch, the English have been left cursing the skullduggery of their Latin foes. First in the form of a Diego Maradona’s handball that sparked a 2-1 Argentine victory in the quarterfinals of Mexico ’86, and then the gamesmanship of another Diego (Simeone) that led to the ejection of Beckham in a second-round tussle that the South Americans eventually won on penalties.
Given this history and the enormous rivalry between the two past winners, their showdown in Sapporo has earned top billing among the first-round matches in the finals.
Ericksson’s men close against Nigeria in Osaka on June 12.
What should make the competition even keener in Group F is the fact that the runners-up will be on a collision course with the Group A winners — almost certainly France – in the second round.
Though credited with developing soccer in its modern form, England were late comers to the World Cup, which began in 1930. They did not make their debut until 1950 and the only ground shaking news they made then was getting pipped 1-0 by the United States.
Since then, however, they have not failed to get past the first round in every finals they’ve qualified for.
England’s best performance in the World Cup after 1966 came 12 years ago at Italia ’90 when a penalty loss to Germany in the semifinals denied them a shot at then defending champs Argentina in the final. They took fourth place instead.
The English also appeared at the finals in 1954, 1958, 1962, 1970, and 1982.
(Each week, Jay Mwamba previews a World Cup finalist or finalists. The teams profiles to this point are Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Denmark, Uruguay, Senegal, France, Paraguay, Slovenia, Spain, South Africa, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Turkey, the United States, South Korea, Portugal, Poland, Nigeria, Sweden and Argentina.)