I think it must have been in 1994 that I first felt relieved England hadn’t qualified for the World Cup finals. Since then I’ve got into my stride; I was positively pleased when they didn’t make it to the Euros in 2008. It’s partly anti-patriotic schadenfreude, I’ll admit; there’s so little to love about the England football team – its style of play, the extra-curricular behaviour of players and fans alike. But more than that it’s being saved from the enervating cycle of rising optimism, hysterical excitement and inevitable disappointment we’re all put through whenever they do make it. Spared the xenophobic front pages, the St George flags flying from car aerials, the blurring of news coverage into sports coverage into news coverage of fans watching sports coverage, you have a chance to enjoy the football for the sake of it, and even to fall in love with a foreign team: Holland in 1978, Cameroon in 1990, France (Zidane!) in 2006, Brazil every time they step on the field.
Unfortunately, this time they have made it, so let’s get the Big Question out of the way before the matter gets confused as Gary asks Alan and the Sun asks Steven and some young Tory toady asks David at PMQs. Can England win it?
The question means different things to different people. If it’s the England captain being asked by a journalist, he’ll choose to hear it as ‘Do you believe you can win it?’ and he’ll answer ‘Of course we can,’ because if belief in England’s chances is expected of anyone, it’s expected of the England captain. David Cameron, on the other hand, might answer with an exquisitely turned expression of hope combined with a self-deprecating nod to England’s history of glorious failure. The question, as he hears it, is: ‘Are you a patriot?’ And if it’s Gary Lineker asking Alan Hansen, the answer he gets will probably be some guff about defensive formations, solving the left-side problem and keeping Wayne Rooney injury-free. ‘Then, Gary, England might have a chance.’ The question Hansen is answering is something more like ‘How good are England?’ That’s getting closer to the heart of the matter. Diehard fans couldn’t care less how England win the World Cup. They might even take a perverse pride in doing it in a recognisably English way: a dogged series of 1-0 victories culminating in a win on penalties after a stultifying 0-0 draw in the final against Denmark. But even they would prefer England to win the tournament by being the best team in it.
So how good are they? The antepost betting gives us one answer to that question. In this country at least, the odds various bookies are offering on the 32 nations in the tournament winning the World Cup outright are rigidly consistent. Spain are the favourites at 4-1; Brazil are second at 9-2; Argentina third at 13-2. England are fourth at 8-1 (they were joint third with Argentina, but then Rio Ferdinand hurt his knee). And so on, all the way down to New Zealand and North Korea at 2000-1. It’s looking bad for England already. If they are the fourth best team in the tournament, then – vagaries of who plays who at what stage aside – we can expect them to get to the semi-finals and no further. In fact, things are even worse, because betting odds don’t represent true estimates of probability. England’s odds are considerably shorter than they should be because so many people are lumping sentimental money on them.
Where should England be ranked? If the teams’ progress in the competition correlates with their ranking, then the top eight teams should make the quarter-finals. In fact it almost never works out this way because the ‘top’ teams are sometimes forced to play each other early in the tournament, and because, well, sometimes things don’t go according to plan. But anyway, to get to the quarter-finals – never mind the final, or even the semis – England would have to get further than at least one of the following teams: Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Italy, Germany, Argentina or France. They’re the eight teams that I believe, based on nothing more than a lifetime’s experience of watching international football, to be the best in the world. They’re also, I’m pleased to find, eight of the top nine clubs in the current Fifa world rankings, in the order I’ve given, but with England squeezing in at eighth place between Argentina and France.
Having undertaken a serious scientific study of every possible outcome in the tournament (conducted in ten minutes over a cup of tea and an eclair in a busy café), I can reveal that if all the initial qualifying groups in the finals are won by one of these top teams (Brazil and Portugal have been unlucky enough to be drawn in the same group, which is going to make life very difficult for one of them; whoever comes second will almost certainly meet Spain in the next round), England are likely to face Serbia or Ghana in the second round. Let’s assume they win that (actually, I’d put their chances at about 65 per cent, but let’s be generous and call it 100). They're likely then to meet France in the quarter-finals. That’s interesting, because France are the only one of my top eight below England in the Fifa rankings. England have played them three times since 2000; they’ve drawn once and lost twice. France were the runners up in the last World Cup. Then again they only got to the finals this time on the strength of a sly handball by Thierry Henry in their play-off against the Republic of Ireland. I think they’ll spank us, but let’s carry on being optimistic and give England a 50-50 chance of winning that game.
They win it! And in the semi-finals, meet Brazil. Oh dear. England have played Brazil four times since 2000, have drawn twice and lost twice; Brazil have won the World Cup more times than anyone can remember (oh all right, five); they’re the top of the Fifa rankings. And they’re Brazil. There are no rational grounds for thinking England can beat them. Still, let's assume England play out of their skins, and Brazil not only have an off day but are incredibly unlucky (maybe they hit the post fourteen times; maybe their striker has a mysterious breakdown the night before the match, as Ronaldo did in Paris in 1998; maybe the ref mistakenly sends their goalkeeper off in the 24th minute; maybe Rooney distracts the Brazilian defence with sock puppets). Then England’s chances, could be put, with laughable generosity, at 35 per cent.
They win anyway! And in the final, come up against Spain, currently thought to be the best team in the world. Brazil’s ranking is a deep historical legacy, but Spain have lost only once since 2006 (that’s one out of their last 47 matches), they are the current European champions, and their midfield is so good that Arsenal’s captain and best player, Cesc Fabregas, generally starts on the substitutes’ bench. England played them in November last year, put in a decent performance by their own standards, and lost 2-0. England’s chances of beating Spain in the final next month can’t be put any higher than 20 per cent (more like 10, but hey).
So, multiplying together those probabilities, even taking for granted that England wins its starting group and its second round match, my frankly absurd overestimate of England’s ‘chances’ of winning the World Cup comes to 3.5 per cent. That corresponds to odds of about 27 to 1, which would make them ninth favourite according to the bookies’ rankings, below the eight teams I expect to be better than them, and a notch above Ivory Coast. My imaginary Alan (‘If this, if that, then they might have a chance’) has got it exactly right. England’s hopes of winning the World Cup are built on contingencies: they aren’t anywhere near the best team in the tournament, but if they can get through to the last three matches of the tournament, luck begins to count for more than it does across, say, ten years of regular fixtures.
For what it’s worth, I predict they’ll lose in the quarter finals, as they have in the last three major tournaments (to Brazil in the 2002 World Cup, and to Portugal in the 2004 Euros and the 2006 World Cup). That would be a good performance from England: they’d have got as far in the tournament as their ranking and their record suggests they should. Lose it on penalties, and they may even come home heroes.