Thoughts So Far…

A couple of things to remember before today’s Quarter Final.

England haven’t beaten either of their last two opponents in 90 minutes. Yes, the 1-0 defeat to Belgium nine days ago was basically a reserve game where losing wasn’t the worst outcome, but after having watched the Red Devils in action against Brazil yesterday it’s hard not to argue that even if that game had been between two full strength sides, England would have needed to have pulled all the stops out to beat our near neighbours.

Colombia didn’t have James Rodriguez available but England should have won that game in 90 minutes. If Colombia had played as well as they could have done – and I’ve got no idea why they didn’t apart from the last five minutes of the second half – then England would have been in trouble. The Cafeteros lost because they deserved to and I’m sure that had Bobby Moore still been with us he’d have felt pleased that the swines who framed him for stealing that necklace all those years ago were knocked out in a penalty shoot out that we finally won.

To some extent, we’re lucky to be playing Sweden this afternoon: they’ve never beaten us outside Sweden but two of the last three competitive meetings – including both games in the World Cup finals – have ended in draws. If we progress, then it’s possible we’ll either play the hosts or Croatia – and we’ve got a lot in common with the latter side – and I’ll cross that bridge if we come to it,

Don’t get me wrong, this is a refreshing change from the last few tournaments.

But I don’t think I’m alone when writing that I am worried about the level of expectation amongst casual fans (and especially how they’ll react if/when England are eliminated) but I’ve also had to field several ridiculous enquiries about a dating app for England fans and a couple of less than stellar attempts to emulate ‘World Cup Willy’, ‘Back Home’ and ‘Three Lions’.

If football does actually come home in just over seven days’ time, expect the camp followers and the baggage train to be very much in evidence.

World Cup 2018 Preview

Well, here we are again!

As some of you already know, we lost all the content from March 2013 but in some respects that was a blessing in disguise – it means we don’t have anything to refer to from the disastrous outings in the last two tournaments.

A bit like the England team itself in that case.

There are only five players in this squad that went to Brazil four years ago and so this is practically a brand new side – the veteran is Ashley Young, who is five months older than Gary Cahill despite having won 24 fewer caps – and the only teenager in the side is Trent Alexander-Arnold. This looks like a squad for the future, but time will tell.

That being said, England are currently 16/1 to win the whole thing – about right considering it’s been 12 years since we got to the quarter finals and 28 since the semi finals – but that’s a bigger price than both our Group G rivals Belgium and arguably the least impressive Argentinian side since 2002.

With all due respect to both Panama and Tunisia, for once I agree with both the bookies and the pundits: the group is been us and Belgium, but as we face the Red Devils last it may come down to who can score the most goals against Panama. The Belgians get first crack at that next Monday (BBC1, 4:00pm) before we take on Tunisia (BBC1, 7:00pm) so at least we’ll have an idea of what we need to achieve in our second game (against Panama, Sunday 24th June, BBC1, 1:00pm).

Goals are where the potential issues are: only Harry Kane and Danny Welbeck have scored more than ten goals in their international careers and – unlike previous tournaments – they aren’t going to get much help in that respect from the midfield. In some respects Kane is comparable to Romelu Lukaku – he’s two months younger and they have similar strike rates in international games – but we don’t have anyone like Kevin DeBruyne or even Marouane Fellaini behind them.

The other problem with Belgium might be familiarity. Eleven of the Belgian squad play in the Premier League and four of them belong to Spurs – that’s only one fewer Tottenham player than in the England squad. But it’s also worth remembering that since their fourth place finish in Mexico ’86, Belgium haven’t got past the second round in a European based World Cup Finals tournament since 1990. Here’s a reminder of the last time they got that far:

Assuming we do get out of Group G – and a draw with Belgium should probably be enough – our next opponents will be one of the qualifiers from Group H. That section has been widely predicted as the most open of all the groups this summer and I’d agree with that: although Colombia reached the second round in Italia 90, it’s been 36 years since Poland qualified from the group stage in a ‘European’ World Cup and neither Japan nor Senegal have ever done that. We could be in trouble if it’s Poland: they’ve been rated higher in than us in the ever reliable (!) FIFA rankings since February 2017 and although they’ve not beaten us for 45 years, records like that are made to be broken.

After that it’s anyone’s guess. As for predictions, I’d say that another unsuccessful trip to the quarter finals is probably on the cards but as long as the team performs at a better level than 2014 – not an unrealistic expectation – then the fans can be happy. A little bit of luck and we might even lose narrowly to the Germans yet again.

From a wider perspective, in the same way as winning the Champions League and the Premier League seem to have become competitions that only elite teams can win, I’m not expecting a ‘new’ name on the World Cup this summer.

However, it’s worth pointing out that no country has won consecutive titles since Brazil in 1962 and with some serious questions about the morale of the Germany squad following an ill advised photo session that featured Mezut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan with the Turkish PM, the Germans might not retain their title.

Spain – who sacked their manager yesterday – have a dreadful record in European based tournaments and despite been written off, Argentina actually have a slightly better record than Brazil do when playing in European World Cups.

Like most of us, I’ll probably have a much better idea of who might win the whole thing in a couple of weeks time but the two teams I’ll be following are Brazil and France: the former because they have a point to prove after their disastrous semi final four years ago and the latter because – on paper at least – they have the talent to compete with the Latin Americans. The question with the French is whether Didier Deschamps can utilise that talent effectively.

Finally for now, here are a few games that could be worth following:

Potential Upset: Russia v Egypt (Tuesday June 19th, BBC 1, 7:00pm BBC1)

I know FIFA rankings can be a bit odd, but Egypt overtook Russia in June 2016 and even though it was against the Soviet Union, the Egyptians won their only previous meeting back in June 1991. I also think there’s the possibility of a surprise result in the game between Argentina and Iceland (Saturday, 7pm ITV) but that may be along the lines of Argentina not winning.

England’s possible next opponents: Poland v Colombia (Sunday June 24th, ITV, 7:00pm) 

Four hours or so after England v Panama finishes so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Best game between two sides that may not qualify for The Round Of Sixteen:

Australia v Peru (Monday June 26th, ITV 3:00pm)

The assumption is that France and Denmark will qualify from Group B, but if anything upsets that plan then both of these teams might need to win to qualify for the next round: this pair are suspect defensively so there might be a few goals in a game that features two very colourful kits.

Most entertaining triple header: Wednesday 27th June

South Korea v Germany (BBC, 3:00pm, BBC)

Mexico v Sweden (BBC2, 3:00pm)

Brazil v Serbia (ITV, 7:00pm)

Brazil and Germany finish their group games on the same day. Although both of them should have qualified for the The Round of Sixteen, Serbia might need a point or three to join them. If South Korea v Germany starts getting out of hand, turn over to Mexico v Sweden on BBC2 because that’s probably going to be the game that settles the runners up in Group F.

Next scheduled post: a preview of England v Tunisia, which will be up at some point on Monday!

Book Review: World Cup 2018

Not being the greatest athlete in the history of the world, I always enjoyed reading books about the World Cup since I was a kid.

I still have my copy of Armada Book of the 1974 World Cup, which – in my humble opinion – is the gold standard of this type of book. Without spoiling the rest of the review, both Lloyd Pettiford’s most recent book and his collaboration with Ronan Fitzsimmons for ‘World Cup 2018: The Ultimate Guide For Armchair Fans’ reminded me immediately – and happily – of Gordon Jeffery’s tome from over 40 years ago.

Of course, between 1974 and today football writing has changed considerably and Pettiford and Fitzsimmons have reflected this with an effective blend of analysis and sarcasm with added scoops of humour that also remind me a lot of ‘When Saturday Comes’. It’s concise, entertaining and contains more insight than some of the books currently available. For example, in one of the early sections – ‘The History of the World Cup’ – the authors introduce us to one of their pet peeves almost immediately and when you’ve read it, it should become one of yours too. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but I’d be really surprised if Mark Lawrenson doesn’t if/when he gets a bit bored on commentary duty. This section also shows that eight decades of football history can be effectively condensed into 26 pages rather than several hundred in some of the more worthy but less entertaining volumes out there (I’m looking at you, Brian Glanville)

You’d expect a book about the World Cup to contain analysis of each country and on the whole ‘World Cup 2018′ does a good job. It’s not the authors’ fault that the tournament has ballooned over the last couple of decades but having to come up with information for 32 different countries is a daunting prospect for anyone and it’s to Fitzsimmons and Pettiford’s credit that they’ve taken a very different approach to the subject.

Their analysis of each nation is half serious and half silly (in some cases very silly) and it’s fair to say that most of the puns in the ‘Songs To Sing In The Fan Zone’ for each participant are simultaneously absolutely terrible and laugh out loud funny and should provide you with something to do during next Thursday’s less than exciting looking opening game as well as any of the ridiculously one sided games that are bound to happen.

A nice touch is trying to solicit comments from the fans from the countries that didn’t qualify – the recent friendly between the Netherlands and Italy earlier this week was probably the most pointless friendly ever as well as a reminder for both teams what they’re missing this summer – and a well written and very sensible piece about the next tournament, which might divide opinions.

You can probably imagine my delight when I reached the last section of the book, where you can fill in the results and goalscorers! That’s really important for a sad git like me: I hate half completed wall charts even though I’ve been guilty of that myself because I don’t like writing standing up at a funny angle. I much prefer the layout for recording the results in this book, which in many ways is oddly nostalgic for those of us who grew up knowing that the World Cup would be the only chance you might get to see some of the players you’d read about in Shoot!

Summing up, ‘World Cup 2018: The Ultimate Guide For Armchair Fans’ is a valuable addition to your World Cup library both for this tournament and those to come. It’s not going to give you instant information about the players on the Serbian subs bench, but it will explain precisely why that’s the case and is definitely worth having around for dipping in to over the next month or so. The official press release is below – although I did have to delete a spoiler for the pet peeve I mentioned earlier:


The Ultimate Guide for Armchair Fans

Paperback Original | May 2018 | £12.99 | Urbane Publications

From the football fanatic authors who brought you The Premier League: 25 Years and Euro 2016, comes a comprehensive fan’s guide to the ultimate tournament of the beautiful game, providing all the information you need to enjoy the highs and lows of every game and every team in the 2018 World Cup.

World Cup 2018 dissects the qualifying campaign and groups, and also has a history of the World Cup with some surprising facts. Then there’s a complete list of fixtures which has already printed England in the final to save readers a bit of time. It even looks forward to Qatar 2022 and suggests it might not be so bad after all. It has enough facts to inform, enough laughs to impress even the most discerning of football fan, and the solutions to many questions, some of which you may even want to know the answers to, including:

  • Is Eduard Streltsov the best footballer you’ve never heard of?
  • What naughty thing will Suarez do this time?
  • Which team has the best kit?

Which team went out at the last 16 stage of the last 5 consecutive World Cups?

So settle back and enjoy the ultimate guide to the World Cop 2018 – perfect for every football fan!

About the authors

Lloyd Pettiford – born in Manchester in the year England last won the World Cup, this is the 26th book Lloyd has written and the 7th on football. Ronan Fitzsimons is the author of four books, a lecturer in languages at Nottingham Trent University and a Newcastle fan.

Possible England Lineup For The World Cup?

They aren’t amongst the favourites for the World Cup, but Gareth Southgate’s side could cause an upset this summer.

After all, we have one of the best strikers in the world and that’s often – but not always – an advantage. However, Southgate will have selection issues as on paper as there are many players who could have an impact.

Since becoming the England national team manager back in 2016, Southgate has always preferred three defenders at the back. With Manchester City’s John Stones and Leicester’s Harry Maguire looking assured of their places in the World Cup, Kyle Walker has been shuttled between right back and central defence in some friendlies.

We’ve seen in previous tournaments – notably 1990 – that some flexibility is desirable when picking a team. Southgate will be expected to field creative players like Dele Alli even though a 3-4-3 would not favour the Tottenham midfielder. Alli is not a flying wing player like Raheem Sterling or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but he can cause problems for defences by dropping in the hole behind Kane and creating chances.

Southgate has a number of options upfront: Danny Welbeck and Harry Kane have very good strike rates at international level, with Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford in reserve. Vardy could be an ace in the hole this summer, especially if Southgate decides to go for a surprise 4-4-2 line up – even if that means omitting Dele Alli:

An alternative could be a 4-3-1-2 formation:

That’s without picking the likes of Rashford, Lingard, Smalling, Trippier, Shaw, Bertrand and
Jones, who will all hoping to earn a flight to Russia in a few weeks time. Flexibility could be Southgate’s secret weapon in the 2018 tournament, but a lot may depend on the individual performances of Kane and Alli on the biggest stage in the football world.

Both the players and the fans will be hoping for a better performance than in Brazil four years ago: on paper, the players who could feature in Russia this summer should be able to get out of Group G but that’s what we assumed last time round – and look what happened then!

Football Not Coming Home as England World Cup Bid Fails

It’s about 24 hours since we were dumped out of the voting for the 2018 World Cup and although I’ve calmed down a bit, guest blogger Richard Smith has actually managed to turn his disappointment into a coherent post…

Despite the huge influences of future Kings, the Prime Minister, Lords, Ladies, Knights of the Realm and future Knights of the Realm, the England bid to host the 2018 World Cup failed (embarrassingly) in the very first round of FIFA voting.

Instead of England being the name on the winning card, it was Russia, the original favourites and who are now charged with creating 13 new stadia, building efficient logistical links between the hosting Cities and their neighbouring countries, all in the short time span of less than 8 years.

Investigations and inquests are being planned, if not already underway as to why the England bid failed, although it is being widely acknowledged that the England presentation was one of the best submitted, suggesting that the failure was due to more spurious reasons. In some respects it is not altogether fair to call it a failure; after all, the Russian bid was based on an extremely valid argument that they had never had the opportunity to host the event in the past. It would also be the first World Cup ever to be staged in Eastern Europe.

The reason why most football fans will regard it as a failure is because the England bid was knocked out in the first round of voting. This means quite clearly, that the bid was never under real consideration, a seriously humiliating indictment for the bid team and quite a surprise considering the England were favourites to win the bid with the odds as short as 4/6!

 The failure could be for several reasons, two of which might best be answered by the BBC and the Sunday Times. The ‘Beeb’ of course decided in their wisdom via their Panorama programme earlier this week, to make serious corruption allegations against four members of the FIFA Executive and the Sunday Times printed similar allegations, suggesting that up to six members of this same FIFA Committee had asked for cash in exchange for World Cup votes.

Whatever the reasons for the failure, it is clear that both the BBC and the owners of the Sunday Times could have better timed their attacks; in fact in light of the failure tonight would have been the ideal time for the Panorama programme to be shown. Certainly it makes those BBC employees on the bid team, Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer look rather foolish in the aftermath of the verdict.

England in fact cannot now host the World Cup until 2030, with Qatar winning the right to host the event in 2022 and South America to host in 2026.

One of the early conclusions being speculated is simply that England is simply disliked by the international football authorities. Their high powered bid team may have been regarded as too top heavy and as such it became intimidating to the FIFA Executive Committee. It would also appear that promises made have been broken, as England felt that they were sure to have received at least three votes in the first round, but in the event they only received two.

As strong as the England bid was, it was well known to FIFA that the bid team were not fully united, particularly those from the Premier League and those from the FA. Lord Triesman, the original leader of the bid team, vacated his chair, in the summer, after making negative comments concerning rival 2018 bids. He was only replaced by a stand in leader, Roger Burden, hardly a household name and not the man that FIFA would necessarily view as a credible bid leader.

Add these underlying problems to the simple fact that England tried too hard to sell the success of the Premier League. This is certainly something that would not go down too well at FIFA, who frown upon those in the sport who spends beyond their budgets and who do not nurture home grown talent. It will also not be lost on FIFA that England failed to qualify by right for Euro 2008 and produced a very poor standard of football in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. These performances would suggest to FIFA that the all is not well in the English game.

Final Presentation: Outstanding

I’ve just finished watching the presentation from Zurich and – without the benefit of seeing those that preceded it – it was fantastic. Of course, I’m somewhat biased about this (I live in one of  potential host cities), but even taking that into account I don’t see how everyone involved in the bid team could have done anything any better.

Now the waiting starts: if anything happens before 3:00pm GMT, I’ll update this post but it’s important to remember that what happens now is no longer in our hands…and having made my position on FIFA absolutely clear earlier in the week, it still wouldn’t come as much of a surprise if we didn’t win.

Finger crossed.

Update: Russia won the vote. Can’t be bothered to react to that immediately, but I’m sure I’ll have something to say about it tomorrow.

‘Panorama’ Did Us All A Favour

‘Logic has to be suspended, normal standards of honesty and integrity have to be suspended. We have to go on our knees to accept FIFA diktats, crawl on our bellies to beg them to give us the World Cup.’

If you’ve not watched last night’s ‘Panorama’ then I strongly suggest that you do before reading this post. Here’s the link.

So…it’s not often that I agree with David Mellor, but it’s his quote at the top of the post and he’s absolutely right. As much as I would love the World Cup to be held in England, when it’s clear that there’s an endemic problem with corruption within FIFA then to be perfectly honest we’re better off staying as far away from them as possible.

In fact, I’d go further than that. We’ve always had issues with FIFA – the FA withdrew for political reasons after the First World War and didn’t return to the fold until after the Second – but it was only when Joao Havelange took over from Sir Stanley Rous in 1974 that the almost medieval culture of simony, patronage and nepotism began to prevail in Zurich.

Almost 40 years later, Sepp Blatter and his henchmen are running FIFA like a third world dictatorship and being  allowed to get away with it by both the football world and the Swiss authorities. There’s absolutely no point in the FA submitting any further bids to stage any tournament until the likes of Blatter, Ricardo Teixeira (Havelange’s ex-son in law) and Jack Warner have been removed from FIFA.

In summing up, as far as I’m concerned last night’s ‘Panorama’ destroyed any remaining credibility that FIFA had rather than any faint hopes that England might host the 2018 World Cup. In any case, there’s bound to be some decent teams that don’t qualify for the 2018 World Cup…so why don’t we organise an alternative one?

Feel free to disagree.  After all, 11 Lions is only a blog, not the international sporting equivalent of Zimbabwe.

Premiership Roundup

As the Sky commentators kept reminding us yesterday, last weekend was a historical one in the Premiership as all twenty teams managed to score.

Obviously, some teams managed to score more than once: new leaders Manchester United put seven past Blackburn Rovers (Blackburn’s biggest defeat in the Premiership since Arsenal beat them 6-2 at the Emirates last October) with Dimitar Berbatov hitting five. Arsenal and West Brom scored four goals at Aston Villa and Everton respectively and all these goals are contributing to a very healthy 2.75 goals per game – which is still fewer than the Bundesliga (3.21), but a lot more than Serie A (2.25).

Having said that, there are still some teams that don’t seem to be able to manage to score in front of their own fans. Manchester City and Birmingham are the worst culprits: City haven’t scored at Eastlands in the league since early October, while two goals at St. Andrews is a bit of a goal glut these days. Away from home six teams (including Liverpool) are scoring less than one goal per game.

United’s win gave them a two point lead over Chelsea and Arsenal – who are only seperated by goal difference – while at the bottom West Ham’s second home win of the season meant that there are now only six points between the bottom six clubs. Somewhat surprisingly, Everton are without a win in their last six games and could be in for an uncomfortable December if that trend continues.

It’s beginning to look as if QPR will replace one of the relegated teams next season: the last time Rangers played in the Premiership was in 95/96 but they took another step on the road to top tier football with a 2-1 win over 2nd placed Cardiff Cityat the weekend.

The draw for the 3rd Round of the FA Cup took place on Sunday evening, although traditionalists like myself would prefer it if the ‘celebrities’ ITV chose to carry out ball drawing duties were people I’d heard of. I’m young enough to remember Oasis’ glory days, but I had no idea what a ‘Kasabian’ looked like until yesterday. If Wagner and/or Jedward are roped in for the fourth round draw don’t say I didn’t warn you.

It came as something of a surprise that there was only one all Premiership tie, but presumably ITV execs will have been squealing with excitement when Manchester United and Liverpool were drawn together. The twelve games featuring Prem teams against Championship opposition may be a record, but Spurs’ record of actually winning something when the year ends in a one will get off to a good start if they can beat either Charlton or Luton.

Newcastle’s last trip to Stevenage ended in a memorable draw and those of you with long memories will remember that once upon a time Manchester City beat Leicester in the 1969 final (winning goal scored by Canadian hippie Neil Young) and Leeds beat Arsenal in the first Cup Final I ever saw in colour.

Finally, the decision on who is awarded the next two World Cups will be made on Thursday afternoon but it’s unlikely that football will be coming home in 2018 – in fact, some of the bookies have now priced Portugal and Spain ahead of us. So if I come across as slightly grumpy when I report the decision, it’s also because I’ve had a filling earlier in the day.

2010: Annus Mediocris

After the World Cup we had, it’s not too difficult to feel at least a twinge of sympathy with our near neighbours, although on the other hand it’s also quite difficult to suppress any giggling.

In some respects the French campaign in South Africa was so wonderfully dysfunctional that it’s hard to imagine any other team self destructing with such panache; at least Italy nearly made it to the second round although at least they have some previous when it comes to underperfoming in Africa.

The sanctions the French FA imposed on their squad in the aftermath of both the performance on the pitch and the histrionics off it look like a classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted.

Tonight’s friendly can be seen from two contradictory angles. On the optimistic side, it’s an opportunity for both sides to field players with minimal international experience who wouldn’t normally make a contribution in the hope that a couple of them will make a breakthrough. From a negative point of view, the game will feature ‘experimental’  (ie under strength) sides and concludes a year that arguably could and should have been more successful for both sides. That’s certainly the way French manager Laurent Blanc seems to see it (some knowledge of French required).

The problem we’ve got – again – is goals. Montenegro’s clean sheet was the first time that we’ve failed to score at home since February 2007, when a goal from Andres Iniesta was enough for a Spanish win at Old Trafford. Fab’s hands have been tied with the usual crop of withdrawals and injuries, which is why the (ahem) ‘troubled but talented’ Andy Carroll of Newcastle will probably start up front; presumably he got the nod before Cardiff City’s Jay Bothroyd because Cardiff aren’t in the Premiership…yet.

The only other confirmed starters are Sunderland’s Jordan Henderson and Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs – when there’s some kind of news about what the team actually is, we’ll have it here.

With just under two weeks to go before the announcement of the host nation for the 2018 World Cup, it’s fair to say that – for whatever reason – our chances of winning the bid are slightly worse than they were at the beginning of the year.

The incident concerning Lord Triesman was regrettable even if there may have been something to it; the perception of the Sunday Times enquiry into vote buying may have damaged the bid even though it seems public perception refuses to blame the journalists, who were right to investigate what was happening.

So the decision to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia will be made by a discredited body that won’t even have enough time to investigate itself before announcing where the next two competitions will be held.

Don’t hold your breath and be prepared for more disappointment. However, if by some miracle we actually win the bid, then mine’s several pints of Bombardier.

Update: starting line up against France:

Foster, Jagielka, Ferdinand, Lescott, Gibbs, Walcott, Henderson, Barry, Milner, Gerrard, Carroll.

Didn’t Ferdinand Lescott-Gibbs discover the Zambezi?