England may plod to glory

No one asked for a reminder, but La Liga’s superstars have given us one in the World Cup anyway. The globe’s best reside in Spain.

It’s a painful certainty to all who place their loyalty in the hands of Britain’s mega clubs, while Real Madrid and Barcelona stack their trophy cabinets. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo gobbling up a decade’s worth of Ballon d’Ors does nothing to lessen the pain.

The Portuguese striker in particular has taken the occasion to accentuate his brilliance and his penchant for being the best on the pitch. Against Spain itself he dragged his team like a rusty ball and chain to what was increasingly looking like an improbable draw. It’s the type of feat few on Earth can accomplish.

Across from him, Diego Costa put on the act that got him so revered and simultaneously despised during his time in England. He bullied and quite literally elbowed his way on to the ball and forced it into the net.

By contrast, we’re still waiting for a Premier League star to dazzle us. The English national team itself far from impressed on the road to victory over Tunisia. Had they not grabbed a late winner, the British press would have launched their headlines into hateful absurdity. In the end they got over the line and we can remark on their grit and refusal to settle for a point.

Although the English team is perilously mediocre, it also represents England’s best chance to make an impact at the World Cup in decades.

Every four years we watch the same movie: a fancied Three Lions trot off to a distant land laden with hope. David Beckham was supposed to be the man in 2002. Instead Ronaldinho delivered a halfway-line free-kick shocker that would have made him blush inside. In 2006, a nation prayed for the fitness of Wayne Rooney and his magical meta­tarsal; what they got was a Ronaldo wink and a swift exit.

READ MORE: England seek World Cup exorcism as Belgium expects

South Africa 2010 was the year the “golden age” was finally going to deliver, when Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard would hurdle whatever invisible obstacle stopped them from functioning as a unit. But no.

There’s little resemblance of any of that fervour in Russia. No one expects a side anchored by Jordan Henderson to leave any imprint on Moscow come July … which may be their greatest strength.

There’s no expectation. Bar Harry Kane, they’ve traded in the big-name outlook for practicality and cohesiveness. They play football that old- school commentators might describe as industrious, studious.

Ashley Young and in particular Kieran Trippier performed adeptly on the wings against Tunisia, their width sufficiently lifting pressure off a stacked midfield. In that centre, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli stand capable of finding Raheem Sterling in space at any given moment. Sitting at the back, Harry Maguire, John Stones and Kyle Walker have enough pace between them to recover from lapses born of their international inexperience.

Whether Gareth Southgate can fuse all these units together still remains to be proven. He’s a walking metaphor of England’s World Cup bid: no flash, with little expectation of a bang. At least there’s no room for disappointment.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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