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England dares to dream

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Saturday, 12 June 2010 14:00

As tensions run high between the United Kingdom and the United States over the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, tonight’s meeting between England and USA on the football field is likely to be the toughest group match for the Three Lions.

With the usual mixture of hubris and fever-pitch anticipation, England once again believes it has a chance to win a World Cup. After cruel disappointments in 2002 and 2006, and the failure to qualify for Euro2008, can the nation really raise its hopes again?

There are some facts in England’s favour. The spine of the team is comprised of a solid group of players in their late 20s and early 30s, traditionally the age where youth and experience combine. Ashely Cole, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Joe Cole are all in the last chance saloon. They will not be in Brazil in four years time.

When you add in front of them a world-class striker at the peak of his form in Wayne Rooney, there are grounds for optimism. Key to their recent success in qualifying matches has been the iron discipline imposed by the Italian manager Fabio Capello. Out with the Sven-Goren Ericsson era of WAGS (wives and girlfriends), the media circus and assorted distractions that made up England’s last World Cup appearance. In comes enforced communal meal times, no mobile phones in the training grounds and a sense of collective rigour.

Not a minor point is the weather. Whereas England’s high-tempo game has been difficult to sustain in the heat of previous World Cups, the evening games of the cool South African winter will feel like temperatures at home.

But in spite of the hype, the almost assured qualification from their group, and the fact they have an easy run to the semi-finals, England will almost certainly run-up against old tormentors Brazil. And even hardened supporters would admit that the five-times world champions would be too much for the Three Lions.

Their Group C opponents include the USA, Algeria and Slovenia. The first match against the USA tonight is billed as the toughest, with two American stars Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan well-accustomed to the English game from their time playing in the Premiership. Physical, and ever-improving, there is the possibility of an upset if England loose their concentration.

Algeria has had a ramshackle run-in to the tournament. Since defeating Egypt in the group stages to go through to the finals, they have not impressed, though their rout of Côte d’Ivoire in the African Cup of Nations suggests a resilience of spirit. An instability in personnel has left many Algerians pessimistic about their chances. Meanwhile, plucky Slovenia, a country of 2m, surprised everyone by getting to the finals, beating Russia on the way.

If England reach the semi-finals they will consider it a job well-done, with fingers crossed to bring the World Cup to the UK in 2018.

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