FOX Soccer Exclusive
Will England fold under pressure?
In the build up to a match against a Polish team that are already out (live, FOX Sports 1, Tuesday, 3 p.m. ET), with England needing a win to make sure, those nerves have manifested themselves in an impassioned debate over the swathes of tickets the Football Association has handed over to the Poles. It is a classically English diversion. Nothing like collective knicker-twisting to stir everyone up for a big game.
The very anxious are wailing that this is supposed to be a home game, and home advantage is being relinquished by ensuring a very generous percentage of the crowd, round about 20,000, will be bellowing for England’s opponents. Those with a cooler perspective point out that if England blow it, that is more likely to be a consequence of how the likes of Robert Lewandowski plays (or, indeed, for that matter Roy Hodgson’s chosen ones) than how vocal the away support might be.
There have been times in recent years, particularly in high pressure games, where it has appeared as if the England jersey was made of chainmail rather than the latest ‘sweat-wicking mesh fabric and laser-cut perforations’. Pulling on the shirt seemed to bring a kind of heaviness to the players, as if the weight of responsibility and expectation somehow squeezes good club form away. Being able to express themselves for England when the pressure is on does not come easily.
Hodgson, who is not a panicker, does a decent job in trying to ease some of the heat that follows England around. This qualification campaign has been too tight for comfort, though, and certainly does not compare particularly impressively with most of the other group leaders in the region. The Netherlands and Germany have coasted, and scored freely. Brilliant Belgium have emerged with a new generation which brims with promise. Obdurate Italy have extended their unbeaten World Cup qualifying run to an extraordinary 39 games. Spain have not been at their finest but will come through barring an unimaginable calamity at home to Georgia and remain a strong European hope. The less heralded Bosnia-Herzegovina, Russia and Switzerland have all harvested more points than England so far.
All Hodgson’s work boils down to this 90 minutes against Poland. Having swatted aside Montenegro last Friday night, England’s players should be reasonably confident. They haven’t actually lost an international match since Zlatan Ibrahimovic toyed with them in Sweden almost a year ago.
They have, though, drawn just under half their games since then, and a draw is unlikely to be enough against Poland. Not with Ukraine hot on English heels in Group H, and looking forward to a last match against wooden spoon holders San Marino, who have a grand total of no points and have conceded 46 goals so far.
The fact that ticket-gate is the issue du jour is typical, really. On top of that, the other hot topic brings endless reminders of an infamous match at Wembley between England and Poland, where the story was written by an eccentrically brilliant display from the Polish goalkeeper, Jan Tomaszewski, whose heroics deprived England of a place at the 1974 World Cup.
Sometimes you have to wonder about this strange English fixation for quirky hysteria in the build-up to important matches. Last week, Adnan Januzaj’s wondrous debut for Manchester United – so spuriously linked to England’s current situation because residency rules could allow him to play for them in few years time even though the likelihood is miniscule - sparked a volcanic splurge of debate about what it means to be English and who should or shouldn’t qualify to pull on a three-lioned shirt.
It all comes at a time when England are deep in thought about where they stand as a football nation. The disparity between the ‘success’ of the Premier League as a global brand, and comparatively modest perceptions about the caliber of the England team, is being discussed at all levels. The new FA Chairman, Greg Dyke, is putting together a commission to come up with a master plan to try to upgrade the whole infrastructure in order to give England the best chance possible in future. A thorough, and overdue, examination of English methods is necessary.
Presumably, ticket allocations will be nowhere near their agenda.