England – World Champions 2011?

The reaction to England’s 1-0 win over Spain last Saturday was relatively muted for the English press, though there was still the odd feature here and there asking “can England win Euro 2012?” (the answer, by the way, is no). For once the English media seem to have at least one foot planted in reality, partly because England was playing a second-ish-string Spanish side, and secondly, and most pertinently, it was a friendly international.

Although clearly more meaning can be attached to some friendly matches than others (and to be fair this one is in the “more” category – England played as a unit and actually used tactics to win), the world of international football is littered with friendly victories against reigning World champions which, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t matter a great deal. The examples given below are rather compelling…

England 2-3 Scotland, Wembley Stadium, London, 15 April 1967

The day Scotland became Unofficial World Champions. As an ardent Scotland supporter myself, I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed the one competitive win I’ve seen Scotland get against England at football (Euro 2000 play-off. Yes please). Truth be told, this also wasn’t an entirely non-competitive game (the Home Championship of 1967 was at stake) but neither was it the World Cup final.

It was one of those great Scottish performances – take the piss as much as possible and eventually crawl over the line, backs to the wall. From the scant video highlights I’ve seen, the game largely featured: Jim Baxter’s keepie-uppies, a goal each for Lennox, Law and McCalliog, with replies for world champions England from Jackie Charlton and Geoff Hurst, the hero of `66.

The fact that DVDs of this game are still available in half the tartan tat shops in Edinburgh only displays how much it still matters to the general Scottish psyche – the fact that Scotland defeated the holders of the Jules Rimet trophy – and that they were England. In the grand scheme of things, however, it didn’t really matter an awful lot.

The Aftermath: World Cup 1970 in Mexico shows the (unfortunate) real gulf in class between the two nations: England get to the quarter-finals and are unlucky to be knocked out by an avenged West Germany; Scotland stay at home.

Italy 0-1 Switzerland, Stadio Olimpico, Rome, 27 October 1982

1982 was something of a cleansing year for Italian football. They won the World Cup having started slowly (as was to become the cliche for future Italian national team performances), with a stellar performance from a disgraced superstar (Paolo Rossi) and an ageing legend (Dino Zoff).

As it was, a mere 14 weeks after lifting the gold and green hand trophy thing, Italy played relative minnows Switzerland in a homecoming friendly match. And lost. From the stats on the game it’s pretty clear the Italians didn’t take the game overly seriously – Zoff and Marco Tardelli (he of the wonderfully psychotic celebration) were subbed at half-time and Rossi came off after 31 minutes. Elsener’s 53rd minute goal for the Swiss condemned Italy to the dampest of squibs in celebrating their victory in Espana `82, and to add mouldy icing to the diseased cake, it was their first home defeat in 11 years.

The Aftermath: Italy fail to qualify for Euro `84, get knocked out in the last 16 in the `86 World Cup but then finish 3rd on home soil in 1990. Switzerland don’t qualify for an international tournament until the 1994 World Cup.

Scotland 1-0 Argentina, Hampden Park, Glasgow, 28 March 1990

This article honestly doesn’t have a Scottish bias. It merely speaks to the fact that, when playing as the underdog, Scotland sometimes don’t do half bad. It’s when we’re expected to win that things generally go horribly wrong.

Underdog was certainly the tag for the chaps in navy blue when Argentina rolled into Glasgow in March 1990. Glasgow at any time of year can be an inhospitable environment – presumably so it was on a Wednesday evening in late March. The fact that Diego Maradona wasn’t around clearly has nothing to do with the eventual result.

Thus it was that, around 10 weeks before they were due to defend the World Cup they won thanks to the genius of one man, Argentina lost 1-0 to Scotland. Thanks to the one and only international goal scored by one Stewart McKimmie. To be fair Argentina did have some cracking players in the eleven that night – Burruchaga, Valdano and Caniggia certainly would’ve been handy going forward. As it was, they lost to a goal scored by a man who’d played an awful lot more games for Aberdeen than El Diego ever would.

The Aftermath: Argentina battle their way through a turgid Italia `90 to an equally turgid final, where they have two men sent off, including Pedro Monzon who was playing at Hampden in late March (must have been a flashback). Scotland qualify for the 1990 World Cup (remember when we used to do that?), but as usual get knocked out in the first round thanks to a late goal from a fairly tepid Brazil.

Brazil 0-1 Paraguay, Estadio Castelao, Fortaleza, 21 August 2002

What is it with international sides and messing up homecoming friendly matches? Surely the pre-requisites are: (a) parade trophy; (b) win game comfortably; and (c) with luck display some new emerging talent which the manager’s decided to throw in as evidence that maybe this World Cup isn’t a flash-in-the-pan job but the beginning of a footballing dynasty.

Brazil were, for Brazil, somewhat surprising winners of the 2002 World Cup. Their qualifying campaign was a shambles, no-one seemed to think Ronaldo could do it any more at the highest level and Luiz Felipe Scolari was, to the ignorant Brit (as I was then) a man who looked like a janitor. As it was, they won the 2002 World Cup in some style, defeating England thanks to that Ronaldinho goal in the quarters and comfortably beating Germany in the final.

However, Brazil’s triumphant return home game in the north-east of the enormous country ended in defeat to a wily Paraguayan opposition who themselves had done (relatively) well in the 2002 tournament, reaching the second round and only losing 1-0 to eventual finalists Germany. Brazil fielded a first-team line-up (before the inevitable round of substitutions) other than the inclusion of Anderson Polga in defence – as it was, Nelson Cuevas’s goal was enough to deflate (for a bit) 200 million people’s reaction to a World Cup triumph which had come from nowhere.

The Aftermath: Much the same – Paraguay continue to be a strong second-tier South American side, reaching the second round of the 2010 World Cup. Brazil continue to produce geniuses of the footballing world, though their last two visits to a World Cup have ended in quarter-final defeat.

So what does all this prove? Probably not an awful lot in the grand scheme of things – football as a sport is unpredictable – teams lose when they don’t deserve to lose, and conversely win when they didn’t deserve to win. As Tim Vickery often says, the fact that football is such a low-scoring game means that surprise results are all the more likely – a team can get a lead of out nothing and then defend it for the remainder of the game. So, England fans of 2011, feel free to be pleased about that hard-fought win at home to Spain. But don’t get too excited – the past isn’t exactly in your favour for when the competitive matches hove into view.

Twitter…

I’m afraid I’ve caved in. fitba2011 (which may need to be renamed soon) is now on Twitter, @fitba2011. I may attempt to tweet more often than I blog, though I must admit that as I type this is making me feel slightly ill. It is obviously time and motivation permitting too. We’ll see how it goes…

Billy Sharp

Just a brief one on this tonight. Football fans may not have heard of the tragic death of Doncaster Rovers’ striker Billy Sharp’s 2-day-old son on Saturday. Sharp scored tonight, playing for Doncaster in a home game against Middlesbrough, and on scoring lifted his shirt to reveal a t-shirt in tribute to his son (“that’s for you son”).  An incredibly poignant moment for an incredibly brave bloke coming back so soon after such a horrific event. My sympathies to him and his family. Doncaster lost 3-1 in the end but for once the result wasn’t the most important story in the match.

Plus, the referee (Darren Deadman) deserves praise for not capriciuously sticking to the rule of the law and booking Sharp for lifting his shirt. Common sense is not something which pervades the administrators of football, and for showing some he deserves serious credit. One only hopes it doesn’t get him in trouble with the FA.