England confront apathy vs. Norway ahead of Euro 2016 campaign

LONDON —  

The whole point of a new chapter is that it is generally supposed to come with fresh ideas, and with a bit of luck, a burst of optimism. As Roy Hodgson appeared in the dark bowels of Wembley Stadium to announce the England squad for the campaign that begins with a friendly against Norway (live, FOX Sports 2, Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET), the mood was gloomy.

There is a toxic mix around England. There is the hangover from old disappointments, a sense that there is more to come just around the corner, and worst of all, a worrying level of indifference from fans. The lowest crowd for an England match since Wembley was rebuilt is expected to turn up to watch this friendly. This is a reality check.

The post-World Cup deflation lingers. Added to that, the retirement of the old captain (Steven Gerrard) and vice-captain (Frank Lampard) left a list of players that was notably low on experience and charisma. In fact, with just two days to go until the Norway game, the FA’s official website was struggling to provide much in the way of information for five of the newer squad members. If you clicked on the profile page for Calum Chambers, John Stones, Danny Rose, Fabian Delph and Jack Colback, you received the message: "Data is not available yet!"

Taking into account a few injuries, the core of the England group for the next tournament is based on Joe Hart in goal, Gary Cahill holding together the defense, and the new skipper Wayne Rooney in attack. Hodgson hopes that some of the talent that has emerged over the last couple of years, who brought youthfulness to the World Cup party such as the Liverpool group of Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of Arsenal, and the Everton wonderkid Ross Barkley, will grow into their roles. Hodgson is keen to highlight the potential, but that is not an easy sell.

"I have to accept people will say what they want to say and that’s fine," he says. "But if I want to be optimistic and I want to believe in these players and I want to give them this chance, I think I’m entitled to do that.

"What happened at the World Cup will be a scar and a wound forever, of course it will, because I went there with such high hopes. But we mustn’t allow that to impact on these young players. They must be given the chance in their own right. They have to believe: ‘I wasn’t responsible for the two defeats in Brazil, that was another group of players and now it’s my turn’. And one day when we do qualify for 2016 — and we will qualify — then it’ll be interesting what this group can do."

Hodgson is not being overly risky when he promises England will qualify for the European Championships in France. Since expanding the format from 16 to 24 teams (out of the 53 who compete in the qualification stage) it’s pretty difficult to miss out. The top two teams from each group go through, with a best third placed team making up the numbers. England are pitted against Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino.

They open up with the hardest game they ought to face, away to Switzerland, which promises to be a tough encounter for this young squad. The challenge, after that, is to not just be competent during the group stage, but also try to evolve into a group capable of bringing a bit of sunshine into the football landscape.

HEAR US OUT

Mulling over that World Cup showing, where England arrived in Brazil feeling hopeful yet stumbled painfully out at the group stage without a win, it was only natural in the aftermath to look around at other nations and wonder why England cannot emulate the way a country like Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany can create a philosophy which underpins a new era.

It is not easy for England to emulate those countries, because the power of the Barclays Premier League clubs doesn’t lend itself to a unified approach to develop players and a pathway for an improved national team. The Bundesliga climbed on board with the German Federation, the DFB, over a decade ago and the fruits of that labor could not have been sweeter than a World Cup triumph.

For England, the long wait for a team capable of competing seriously for international honors goes on.