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Return of the lion kings?

Or, put another way, can the England football team overturn their recent World Cup disappointments and go from being turnips to cherries on top?

May 18 2010
Jamie Reid

The 2010 Fifa World Cup kicks off in South Africa on June 11 and England travel to Rustenburg to start their campaign with a match against the US a day later. As always, the nation’s footballing fans and punters have great expectations. But come the final on July 11 will they be celebrating a great national triumph or will elation have given way to that familiar combination of embarrassment and despair?

At the last World Cup, in Germany in 2006, the Three Lions went out tamely in the quarterfinals, losing 3-1 on penalties to Portugal. Their lacklustre efforts were a lot less entertaining than the capers of the Wags, who shopped and posed around the purlieus of the team’s HQ in Baden-Baden. That tournament was the last hurrah of the then England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson, who had earlier guided England to the last eight of Euro 2004 (where they were also knocked out on penalties by Portugal) and to the same stage in the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Unfortunately, Eriksson’s era became associated not with footballing excellence but with his off-the-field entanglements and emergence as a bit of a lothario. But then Eriksson wasn’t the first or last England coach to become the subject of media scrutiny – and derision.

The most famous victim was the hapless Graham Taylor, who had never won a major trophy before taking over the England role in 1990. His team played a dire version of the “long ball game” in which the ball is repeatedly booted up field in the hope that someone will head it into the goal. When England lost feebly to Sweden in Euro 1992, The Sun ran a caricature of Taylor as a turnip above the immortal headline “Swedes 2, Turnips 1”. The poor man’s reputation never recovered and he was sacked the following year.

But if successive England managers have ended up as sacrificial victims, their underachieving players must also take some blame. So what are the chances of the Premiership’s stars covering themselves in glory this summer? Well, whisper it: many good judges feel England have a decent chance of at least reaching the semifinals and maybe going all the way. Talismanic striker Wayne Rooney is arguably the best player in the world at present – and it’s vital he stays fit – but what’s also different is that the manager, Fabio Capello, inspires confidence.

The Italian has brought with him huge experience of club football, having won domestic titles with Real Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan and Roma, as well as the Champions League. The 64-year-old is a shrewd tactician and a disciplinarian who insists on good manners at team meals and meetings just as he demands skilful passing and robust tackling. He has also banned Wags from the team’s presence for all but one day a week, after matches. Under Capello, England qualified for the World Cup losing only one game and no other side in South Africa, not even old adversaries Portugal and Germany, will relish playing them.

The conditions in South Africa in June (temperate, low humidity) should suit England and, providing they hold their nerve in any other penalty shootout, they could conceivably return with the World Cup trophy at 63-10 on Betfair. Spain, the current European champions, and Holland, an improving side, look the dangers at 4-1 and 14-1 respectively with Hill’s. But I’d lay France, a shadow of their 1998 World Cup-winning team, at 19-1 on Betfair.