Eng­land are go­ing to the World Cup, but don’t hold your breath

The Guardian Weekly - - Sport - In­side sport Bar­ney Ronay

Put out more flags. Dust down the red and white jester’s hat. Root out the gumshield, the crum­pled Yeka­ter­in­burg metro map. And pre­pare to head once more into that strangely gru­elling ter­ri­tory be­tween bruised and fear­ful cyn­i­cism and the eter­nal quiver of tour­na­ment hope.

Eng­land’s foot­ballers booked their place at the 2018 World Cup in Rus­sia af­ter surely the most me­an­der­ing, flac­cid qual­i­fi­ca­tion vic­tory yet de­vised by any Eng­land team. Slove­nia were beaten by Harry Kane’s late goal last Thurs­day but make no mis­take – this was both a dread­ful game of foot­ball and a numb­ing spec­ta­cle.

Vic­tory may have sealed qual­i­fi­ca­tion, but it de­flated any re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions of what might hap­pen when Eng­land get there. This should con­cern the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion. There are only so many times even Eng­land fans will be pre­pared to pay £40 ($53) for the plea­sure of throw­ing pa­per aero­planes at the pitch.

The chal­lenge now for Eng­land’s man­ager, Gareth South­gate, is to pro­duce a team that peo­ple ac­tu­ally want to watch. In their cur­rent guise, watch­ing Eng­land is like watch­ing a 12-round un­der­card split de­ci­sion wres­tle-off be­tween a pair of pon­der­ous over­weight taxi driv­ers. Suc­cess for this team would in­volve sim­ply play­ing with a lit­tle free­dom, ex­plor­ing their own lim­its and re­fus­ing to leave the com­pe­ti­tion un­til they have at least been beaten by a demon­stra­bly su­pe­rior team. Score some goals. Pro­duce at least one per­for­mance that lets ev­ery­one feel giddy and stupid and de­luded for four days in June.

There is a wider is­sue here about in­ter­na­tional foot­ball it­self. When Eng­land’s away fans in Malta last

month sang “we’re fuck­ing shit” they weren’t an­gry or incensed or spoil­ing for a fight. They were tak­ing the mickey out of the whole thing: Eng­land, us, them, the en­dur­ing dis­junct be­tween a do­mes­tic league of such screech­ing ur­gency and a na­tional team who have with­ered in its shadow.

Take note, Gareth. It is when they stop boo­ing you re­ally want to start wor­ry­ing. Eng­land will travel to Rus­sia with hope. But not much of it.

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