England and World Cups: another episode in a lifetime of heartbreaks?

I’m old enough to remember watching (as a very young boy) England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup final. At the time, I thought it was in the natural order of things that England should be world champions. I was fully expecting us to continue to dominate world football.

I was already puzzled that we had had to wait for the eighth World Cup to win it — though I learned that this was because we had boycotted the first three world cups (there was no need to participate in a vulgar tournament to prove our superiority); that we had been too nonchalant and complacent the first time we participated in 1950 (when we had lost to a USA team composed of English amateurs); and somewhat unlucky in 1954 (losing to Uruguay), 1958 (when we were undefeated, but failed to qualify from the group stage) and 1962 (losing to the eventual winner, Brazil).

Now, surely, the natural order of things would see the inventors of football win the World Cup again and again…

So I was bitterly disappointed in 1970 when, from 2-0 up in the quarter-final against Germany, we managed to lose 3-2. It was, of course, a fluke — Uwe Seeler’s equaliser for Germany came off the back of his head with him having no idea where it was going, and benefiting from the absence of our invincible goalkeeper Gordon Banks who had suspiciously fallen ill, being replaced by the hapless Peter Bonetti. Never mind — we would win in 1974!

But we failed to qualify for the tournament in 1974. At Wembley, we lost the crucial qualifying match to Poland in one of those games where one side is totally dominant, has all the chances to score bar one, hits the woodwork several times, and the opposition goalkeeper has the match of his life. To cap it all, our own legendary captain (Bobby Moore) made an uncharacteristic error, letting the Poles score. The fact that Poland went on to finish third in the tournament was conclusive evidence that England would have done even better!

Puzzlingly, England also failed to qualify in 1978 (having lost out in the qualifying group to Italy, on goal difference). But maybe this was just as well, with the World Cup played under the auspices of a fascist military junta and characterised by some very dubious refereeing decisions.

And so to 1982. England were the only undefeated team in the whole tournament — yet somehow still managed not to win it. We won all three matches in our group stage, though in fact we would have been better off had we let France beat us. Their second spot in the group led them to play Austria and Northern Ireland on their route to the semi-final whereas we faced the host nation Spain and the dreaded Germans. This World Cup had a second round of group matches in which our two draws against those two teams were insufficient. Had a particular header by Kevin Keegan gone in, instead of narrowly missing, we would have gone through. Clearly another case of rotten luck — with extra salt rubbed in the wound by the fact that eventual winners, Italy, hadn’t won a single match in their group stage!

1986 offered further proof that events simply conspired against England. Eliminated by the ‘Hand of God’ — Maradona’s blatant handball goal that none of the officials saw — was clear evidence that the authorities (God or officialdom) were biased against us!

1990 provided further rotten luck. Dominating the semi-final against Germany, we lost to a fluke goal, while the woodwork came to their rescue. Gazza’s tears and Pavarotti’s Nessum Dorma ensured that this pain was etched into memories for ever.

1994 saw England fail yet again to qualify, beaten famously by Norway (!) and the Netherlands in the qualifying tournament.

1998 saw England lose again to Argentina in the quarter-final, despite a brilliant performance. Down to ten men after Beckham had been sent off, England scored what seemed to be a perfectly good winning goal only for it to be disallowed by the referee. We inevitably lost the subsequent penalty shootout.

2002 saw us going out on another fluke, the long-range goal by Brazil’s Ronaldinho, probably never intended to be a shot, that caught out goalkeeper Seaman.

It also raised an interesting question of why we so often managed to come up against Brazil or Germany (eight times!), whereas those two teams themselves never played each other in the World Cup before meeting in the 2002 final. Between the two of them, they had reached every postwar final except one until 2002, something clearly impossible without a hefty dose of luck — luck that never seemed to come England’s way.

2006 was surely to be our year. With no trace of a dominant team, we seemed to have a good chance and progressed smoothly to the quarter-finals where we only needed to beat Portugal. Yet, after Wayne Rooney contrived to be sent off, we could manage only a 0-0 draw and we of course lost the penalty shootout.

Were we cursed? Or was it natural that in a tournament that was now a knock-out cup from the last 16 onwards, where just one slip meant you were out, the best team (usually us, of course!) would only rarely win the tournament. After all, at club level, the best team (by definition, the league winners) only rarely wins the knock-out cup as well. And statistically, only the width of a post (in the 1990 semi-final against Germany — and assuming we would have won the final against Argentina) had stopped us from winning the same number of post war world cups as Germany, Italy and Argentina, ahead of France, Spain and Uruguay, trailing only Brazil. If any of the other injustices/bad luck/refereeing howlers had gone another way, we would have the second-best record of all!

But 2010 saw ultimate proof that we were cursed. Again we met Germany, and again we were eliminated in a match remembered for one of the most blatant refereeing mistakes ever, ruling out a perfectly valid England goal on the ground that the ball had not crossed the line, when it easily had. This gave a big boost to the movement towards goal-line technology, but, alas, too late to save England.

By 2014, I was finally resigned to English failure. But for once it was not bad luck! We came bottom of our Group in the initial group stage, behind Costa Rica(!), Uruguay and Italy.

And now?  Come on Belgium!

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