England aim to end 52 years of World Cup pain

Road to Moscow: This assumes England wins its group, and all the favourites win their matches.

How excited should England fans be? The Three Lions kick off their World Cup campaign today. The familiar tournament hype is engulfing the country. Does pressure help players or hinder them?

England will start its World Cup campaign at the site of arguably the 20th century’s great turning point. The team will face Tunisia in Volgograd, a city still known to many by its Soviet era name — Stalingrad.

The Battle of Stalingrad was the start of the Red Army’s offensive towards Berlin. Gareth Southgate’s team is hoping this is the start of its own march towards final glory in Moscow.

England is the heavy favourite for this match, with Tunisia rated as roughly the fourth worst team at the World Cup.

The Three Lions have been trapped in a familiar cycle for decades.

It starts with a disastrous exit at a tournament — Iceland in 2016, Germany in 2010. The team comes home in disgrace. There are articles asking: “Where now for English football?”

Next comes qualifying, where England is relentlessly effective — and relentlessly uninspiring. This is the apathy phase. “Don’t get your hopes up, England will let you down again”, fans tell each other.

Then, in the months before the tournament begins, everything changes. Young players hit form. A coherent first XI emerges. The motherland of football, starved of success for 52 years, starts to believe again.

And so pressure, inevitably, starts to weigh on players.

After dumping England out of Euro 2016, Iceland’s Aron Gunnarsson said he “almost felt sorry” for England for the pressure it was under. “They knew the trouble they would be in if they lost to Iceland.”

All the big sides are under huge pressure, but England seem to buckle the most. The best example is its record in penalty shootouts, the ultimate test of footballing nerve. For the last World Cup, the team turned to a psychologist to help it cope with the pressure of a shootout.

The balance between excitement and overconfidence can be hard to get right. On the morning of the 1950 World Cup final between Brazil and Uruguay, the Brazilian newspaper O Mundo declared Brazil the “world champions”.

Brazil lost, and the players became loathed for the rest of their lives by the Brazilian public.

How excited should England fans be?

Fever pitch

Dare to dream, say some. England has improved vastly in recent months, and in the World Cup anything can happen. At the best of times, pressure can be hugely galvanising as a team rides a wave of national fervour. The best players thrive under it — and those who cannot cope will never be successful anyway.

Temper your expectations, reply others. Fans should learn from the past and become more humble about their team’s chances. England has no right to have similar expectations to Germany or Spain. And without that crushing pressure, there is a good chance the players will loosen up and play better football.

You Decide

  1. Can England win the World Cup?
  2. Is pressure a force for good or ill?

Activities

  1. Split into groups. Think of three ways to cope with pressure. Share them with the rest of the class.
  2. Imagine that England have won the World Cup. Write a 500 word news report on the mood of the nation.

Some People Say...

“Everything negative — pressure, challenges — is all an opportunity for me to rise.”

Kobe Bryant

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
England will play Tunisia in Volgograd in its first match in Group G of the World Cup. The team will then face Panama and Belgium before a Round of 16 match against (most likely) Poland or Colombia. From there, if it was to win the World Cup, it is likely that England will face three of the tournament’s front runners. England have only won the tournament once — in 1966 on home soil. Its second best finish was a semi-final in 1990.
What do we not know?
Why England seem to underachieve at the international level. It has a comparable population to Italy, Germany, Spain and France, but has won only a fraction of the trophies they have won. One reason might be the sheer amount of money in the Premier League, which leads to foreign players often being preferred to home-grown talent.

Word Watch

Stalingrad
Lasting for nearly six months, the Battle of Stalingrad was the Second World War’s longest, and claimed the lives of around two million people. Hitler blamed his eventual downfall on losing this crucial battle.
Heavy favourite
England is priced at 4/9 to win the match (bet £9 and you get £13 back). Tunisia is massive 750/1 outsiders to win the World Cup.
Relentlessly effective
England won eight and drew two of its qualifying games. However it only managed to score 18 goals in a group including minnows Malta and Lithuania. England have qualified for every tournament since 1996 except the 2008 European Championships.
Record in penalty shootouts
England was knocked out of the World Cup in 1990, 1998 and 2006 on penalties, and the European Championship in 1996, 2004 and 2012. The team’s only win was against Spain in the quarter-finals of Euro 96, a tournament in which it was beaten on penalties in the semi-finals.
1950 World Cup final
The game became known as the “Maracanazo”, meaning roughly “The nightmare of the Maracana”. The Maracana is the stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

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