England, Belgium, Tunisia, Panama: it doesn’t make an acronym as alluring as the ‘England Algeria Slovenia Yanks’ headline The Sun ran at this stage in 2009, but English football fans will have breathed a sigh of relief after being placed in a group we might call BTEC – Belgium Tunisia England Canal folk (Panama) – because it certainly wasn’t the hardest option out there.
A cautious optimism must now seep into the England set-up. Encouraging draws against Germany and Brazil proved that this generation are more dour and pragmatic than the extravagant ensemble that preceded them. Even at managerial level, the contrast between unfashionable Gareth Southgate and his predecessors is stark: Southgate is a dullard from Crawley, whose most extensive managerial experience was three years at Middlesborough, whereas Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello were sexy European gentlemen, and even Roy Hodgson has language skills that would make a UN interpreter blush. Southgate is English bog-standardness at its finest; you can almost imagine him describing a 0-0 draw with Tunisia in Volgograd as a good result.
The biggest advantage of the draw is that England’s group has been placed alongside one of the weakest in the competition. Supposing England see of the Tunisians and Panamanians, but finish second to the elegant Belgians, they would face the winner of a group featuring Poland, Senegal, Colombia and Japan. There is no giant in that group, just four teams engaged in a Battle Royale face-off of mediocrity. The talented teams of the tournament are stuffed into the centre of the draw, like filling in a sandwich. On the outsides, the boring, beige bread is occupied by teams like Russia, Portugal, England and Poland, who all look increasingly like dark horses for the trophy.
Which all leads to the illogical conclusion that we are on the brink of winning the World Cup. A slip-up for either Germany or Brazil could see them face each other in the Round of 16; likewise Argentina and France. There is no disaster for England except a group stage elimination, meaning the tussle with Panama in Nizhny Novgorod can be played with a levity that befits the administrative capital of the Volga Federal District. We’ll be dancing on the streets of Kaliningrad when we take on Roberto Martinez’s Belgian side, who, unlike us, are weighed down by their ‘golden generation’ tag.
If you are not already getting carried away with the possibility of England contra mundum in Russia, then you are disavowing a key part of the English footballing experience. Again and again pundits play down England’s chances, harp on about the brilliance of Germany and France like the worst sort of Remainers, and tell us how lucky we’d be to reach the quarter-finals. When we were handed the EASY group in 2010, we blew it by finishing runners-up to the USA and therefore playing Germany instead of Ghana in the Last 16. The US proceeded to lose to Ghana, who then lost to Uruguay, who lost to the Dutch, who lost to Spain in the final: you don’t need a BTEC in maths to know that we would have reached the final, had we just snuck a win against Algeria…
Next year, English fans will head to Russia having been warned against optimism for six months straight. The combination of unrealistic self-confidence and masochistic self-flagellation is unique to the English psyche, but there are now genuine reasons for a bit of swagger amongst England supporters and there’s no harm in that. Let’s hold the doom and gloom until the whistle blows.