There has been no small amount of hand-wringing in the last few days about England, their failure to beat Slovakia and finishing second in Group B. On Tuesday one of the slightly giddier newspapers decreed Roy’s brave boys had ‘choked’, while another, traditionally rather more considered publication branded England ‘second rate’ and solemnly warned that they might have to face Cristiano Ronaldo in the next round. Not, you’ll note, Portugal: very specifically, Cristiano Ronaldo. If you think so little of the rest of their players that you can’t even bring yourself to refer to them as a collective, that might be a sign the team is no good, or at least you don’t think they’re any good, which sort of negates the point you were making in the first place.
Brows have been furrowed and sulky arms folded after Mr Roy made six changes to his line-up, a gamble that was supposedly the height of irresponsibility but, while the situations were not quite the same, that was just one more change than Croatia made for their final group game against Spain, and you can ask David de Gea how that went. Amusingly enough, presenting some evidence that much criticism in football is perhaps post-hoc, Vicente del Bosque got it in the neck for making no changes at all for that one.
Of course finishing second theoretically makes the path through the tournament tougher, but the tone of those complaints, as people worked out that England were now in France, Germany, Italy and Spain’s half of the draw, gave the impression that if Roy Hodgson was to lead his men to glory they wouldn’t have to play any good teams at all. And in any case, England haven’t shown much aptitude in the ‘beating the rubbish teams’ stakes so far, so in reality it probably doesn’t make much difference. If you’re the sort of swivel-eyed optimist who expects England to win the whole thing, just be assured that they will probably have to play well and beat some good teams at some point.
Still, few could argue, with a straight face, that England have been outstandingly good so far. No matter how one dresses up the performances and the tactics and the blah blah blah oh sweet fancy Moses make it stop, they came second in a favourable group which featured, in Russia, one of the worst teams to make a European Championship finals in recent memory. It should perhaps not be a colossal surprise, but England have not exactly been dazzling at a major tournament.
But then again, who has? Germany have looked like a team playing with a headache in their three games, frustrated by Poland and only managing one against Northern Ireland’s Michael McGovern, a goalkeeper who (admittedly had the game of his life but…) conceded 67 goals in Scotland last season. Spain looked cocksure and silky before the Croatia debacle, and for all David Silva’s passing magnificence they have lost one more game than Switzerland and Hungary. France have seemingly been undergoing some sort of national existential crisis for at least the first 87 minutes of their games so far, and then there’s Italy, whose very good performance in the first game was aided healthily by Belgium (there’s another) being absolute bobbins, and then followed by a dry heave of a showing against Sweden.
Which teams have genuinely played well, or at least above their expectations, throughout the tournament? Croatia? Even then they had a late brain scramble against a shell of a Czech Republic team, and have Vedran Corluka, 57, at centre-back. Wales are of course in dreamland, but they forgot they’re actually pretty good these days and didn’t need to defend for an entire half against England. Iceland, perhaps? Don’t tell Cristiano.
This isn’t to say that the tournament hasn’t been absorbing or interesting: it has, with plenty of close games and a good few exciting ones too. But really, the quality of football in the first round of these tournaments, for the purposes of judging who’ll win or even do well later on, is basically utterly pointless. The winners in 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2004 all finished second in their groups, and even the Spain teams of 2008 and 2012, who have a good case to be ranked among the greatest of all time, weren’t entirely convincing in the opening stages.
Depending on your point of view, this first round has either been art for art’s sake, a simple excuse for us all to watch three games of scrumptious, delicious, hearty football a day, or an extended administrative procedure, completing a series of set tasks to the minimum level, over 270 minutes. If major tournaments were job interviews, the first round is basically about keeping your trousers on and not accidentally punching the CEO of the company, or those psychometric tests where as long as you don’t say every Rorschach blot is a bomb or a pair of breasts, you’re fine. It’s the next rounds when you show them what you can do.
So no, England haven’t been any good. But not many teams have. And that’s OK, because nobody’s had to be yet.