England’s sharper edge was key to their World Cup advancement

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor
July 6, 2018

All’s fair in love, war and World Cup knockout games. That was certainly the prevailing sentiment on Tuesday night; how England got beyond Colombia was irrelevant, that they did so was everything. As Gary Neville said on ITV’s coverage of the game:

“We’ve suffered so much. We needed this as a nation.”

He was right and it’s hardly the moment to dwell on the means by which that carthasis was delivered.

In the days since, Colombia have not responded well. A deputised Diego Maradona has led the march of injustice, describing the game as a monumental theft and several of Jose Pekerman’s players, most notably Radamel Falcao, have also used social media to air their grievances.

It’s certainly what you’d expect. Penalty shootout defeats are cruel and nobody has ever taken them in stride. Nevertheless, even on a second inspection of the game it’s difficult to understand the Colombian grievance: the penalty awarded in normal time was a penalty and, without question, they benefitted more from the generosity of the officials.

Where they might have a point, though, is in the conduct of the England players. John Stones was extremely fortunate to avoid a red card for his sly kick on Falcao and, the more you watch it, the uglier Harry Maguire’s second-half dive becomes. Jordan Henderson, too, was lucky to stay on the field.

But does that mean that England deserve an asterisk? No. Too often in the past, players from this country have been reticent in reacting and responding to the tone of a contest. Whether anyone likes it or not, modern football isn’t always a virtuous affair and advancing in a knockout competition is as much about survival as it is fair play; it’s an environment which demands that players do whatever it takes to advance.

England’s history is littered with instances of opponents doing exactly that. Thomas Berthold’s dive earned Paul Gascoigne that fateful booking in 1990, Diego Simeone slyly milked a red card for David Beckham in 1998, and Portugal did everything they could to remove Wayne Rooney from the equation in 2006. In 2010, there weren’t many Germany players in a rush to concede that, yes, Frank Lampard’s chip had dropped almost a full metre over the line. It was ultimately incidental, but it’s also worth recalling the quick Argentinian re-start in 1998 after Sol Campbell’s disallowed goal. At World Cups, countries pursue every loophole they can find.

And that’s fine. The point isn’t to build a cumulative pity tally and claim that England are in some sort of moral credit, instead it’s to illustrate that this is just what happens at the highest level of the game.

Yet, England seem to be held to a different standard – or, at least, they’re presumed naive and to be the kind of side against a whom an artificial advantage can always be found. In recent years that’s been less clear. England have often performed dreadfully and have been eliminated from tournaments solely on account of their inadequacy. There have been other occasions though, when they’ve departed to the shrill sound of futile, after-the-fact complaints. Some may have been justified, but they’ve been of little consequence.

And, in fact, the frustration in those instances hasn’t been with the officials or even the opposition, but with the England players themselves. Currently, Peter Shilton and Terry Butcher can still be heard berating Maradona for the Hand of God incident in 1986. It’s not necessarily unreasonable, but that incident would never have taken place had Shilton properly understood the kind of character he was dealing with. That looping ball was his; any attempt Maradona made to touch it should have left him prostrate.

That didn’t happen. In the end, Argentina went on to win the World Cup and England, as always, spent the next thirty years complaining about it to nobody in particular.

For that reason, Michael Owen’s twin dives against Argentina in 1998 and 2002 were actually – in a way – refreshing. His first was a righteous response to an equally crafty bit of play down the other end of the pitch minutes early and his second, four years later, just served to illustrate that, although very mild, a foul had actually taken place. It was a penalty, Owen just made sure that it was given.

Does that imply that we should take pride in England players bending rules and manipulating officials? Absolutely not. Nevertheless, if a game becomes subversive and an opponent is attempting to mine an advantage from its conditions, then it’s not reasonable to expect only rosy-cheeked Corinthianism in response.

That’s certainly the appropriate frame for Tuesday evening. Colombia created the conditions for that game and part of their strategy against England was evidently to make the contest as fractious as possible – evidenced by the Wilmar Barrios incident, that bizarre moment between Raheem Sterling and one of Jose Pekerman’s assistants, and by the constant pressure applied to Mark Geiger, the American referee.

It was preconceived. It was also England’s willingness to match those tactics which helped to disturb the Colombians’ focus for so long. The South Americans played in a perpetual rage and, during certain periods, almost with indifference to the score. So therein lies the irony and the justification: Pekerman wrongly assumed that hostility was vital – but then why should his team’s opponents be prohibited from pursuing a similar advantage?

England slay their dragons

Meet fire with fire. In previous years, that wouldn’t have been the case. Instead, England would have been rattled from their own rhythm, have probably have lost, and would then have been left making their claims of injustice to a world which, on past precedent, would have just smiled and laughed. That’s the game, they would have been told.

So – yes – evaluating that England performance would have been simpler had it not been for the ugliness. Really though, it was that sharper, darked edge which was one of the keys to their progress. It’s one which they’ve been lacking for a long time and, previously, have been made to look foolish for not possessing.

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