Thursday, June 08, 2006

#1: Three Lions


Where? Southern two-thirds of the island of Britannia, off the Northwestern coast of Europe.

How big? Not that big. About the size of Nicaragua, smaller than Georgia. Population is quite dense, more than twice the size of Texas.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook? Actually, England doesn't have an entry in the factbook, since it is only part of the United Kingdom. Something interesting about the UK is that its North Sea oil rigs are responsible for more than half of the proven oil reserves in all of the European Union.

Geopolitical significance? While the days of the British Empire are surely over, and the sun does indeed set on the Queen's realm, England is still one of the world's most important nations. England has a strong economy, a powerful military, and a culture that has been exported to other nations almost as much as America.

Fun? Yes. England is one of 4 countries in the Cup I have visited. I indeed had fun there. Something fun is the student newspaper/gossip rag/humor magazine at my English Alma Mater, Jesus College, Oxford. The name of the magazine is The Sheepshagger, in reference to the college's Welsh history. I therefore am a sheepshagger, and proud of it. And for those in the know, the B'stard's back, indeed.


Arguably, England is the birthplace of modern soccer. The rules were set in the 19th century by the Football Association. England played in the first international match in history, a draw against Scotland. In the days before the World Cup, England was one of the best teams in the world. Disputes between FIFA and England led the FA to not participate in the World Cups before WWII. This snub may have bitten them back, when England suffered possibly the most embarassing loss in its history at the first World Cup it entered, a 1-0 loss to an amateur USA side, and one that contributed to England not advancing past the first round. Three times England hasn't qualified for the Cup, but since 1958, whenever England has qualified, they've advanced. They've made the quarterfinals seven times, the semis twice, and were champions of the world in 1966 at home.

Qualifying this time and the draw have been good to England. Almost too good. Poland was the only respectable opponent in qualifying, and both teams ended up qualifying without even going into the playoffs. England were seeded, and the draw placed them in probably the lightest of all groups.

The team itself is strong, though not as strong as you'd think for a team I picked to win the Cup. There are definite weaknesses. primarily at keeper and up front. Les Robinson is by no means a top class keeper, and the backups frighten fans. Up front Owen will likely end up the all time leading scorer in England history, but he's been gimpy over the last year or so. Wayne Rooney is England's best pure scorer, but his injured foot has everyone worried. The defense and the midfield, however, are among the world's best, in my opinion. Lampard is as impressive a midfielder as I've seen recently. John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, and possibly the best left back on the planet, Ashley Cole make up a back line that everyone should have trouble getting past, and should help Robinson greatly. David Beckham gets a lot of the press, and he's probably so overhyped that he's now underrated from the backlash of his overrated-ness. (That make sense?)

But the one player to watch is Steven Gerrard. He can score from all over. He can set up plays and bring people involved. And most importantly, he elevates his game when they need him to. He is England's best player, in my opinion. As I wrote above, England's draw is favorable, and the timing of the matches may help them even more, since their toughest match is third, after they may have already clinched advancement.

The opener is Paraguay, a sneaky team but one that too many people are thinking can scare England. Paraguay has been suffering from injuries as problematic as England, but Paraguay doesn't have the talent England has in its back 8 or 9. I don't know if Rooney really will be ready Saturday, but I have a good feeling Paraguay won't score. A 1-0 win for England is a solid result.

Trinidad and Tobago are next. This isn't a fair fight. England definitely have figured out how they want to play, and three goals later, the match is over and they've booked their place in the next round.

The last match against Sweden is simply for first or second. England rests some of the injured players and focuses on defense, and so does Sweden. Each team scores and it's a draw 1-1. Here's where my preview gets screwed up: I picked England and Sweden to finish with the same record, same goal differential, same total goals. Not sure how I worked it out for England to win the group, but they do. The next round brings more luck to England, with Costa Rica advancing out of their easy group. England completely overpowers them and unleashes some offense nobody thought England would have. 4-0 England.

Finally, a tough match lines up opposite England, with Holland. The Dutch open the scoring and match up well with England. With time running out and another quarterfinal defeat looming over Britain, it's the perfect time for some magic. And there's one guy to do it. Gerrard scores with just minutes to go to send the match into extra time. Just minutes into that, Gerrard scores again. 2-1 England. Semifinalists.

Described this well yesterday, so I'll just copy it... Both teams have the appearance of a "team of destiny". Spain has one of the true stars of the tournament in Fernando Torres. England has had incredible play from the midfield and defense, and hasn't had the most difficult path either. This match starts with slow, physical play. Despite the play of both teams up to this point, neither team puts together successful scoring opportunities. The game gets bogged down in the midfield for most of the time. A few England chances are saved by Casillas, and Spain flubs the few chances they have. Extra time ends with no goals for either team. Penalties will decide the match, and one would think that Spain would have the edge with Casillas in goal. Unfortunately, the Spanish shooters fall apart. Torres bags the first one, but Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia both fail to score. England scores the first three. Raul is up next, needing to score to keep Spain in it. Post. Noise. England are in the final.

The final. The match this has all been building toward. When picking the matches, I kept thinking to myself, what would make for the most interesting cup, within reason. I thought about the Netherlands and Brazil, and how fun that match could be to win. I thought about Germany and France, or Germany and Holland, or Germany and England (which would've been awesome too). But only one match kept coming to mind. Argentina and England. The Hand of God. Beckham's red card. Clash of styles. Argentina's speed on offense against the strength of the English defense. England's stoicism against Argentina's flair and flopping. In my own mind, this is the match to see. I'm writing the narrative here, so this is it.

Both teams start the game a little tentatively. It's been a long long time since either team made it this far, and both teams have the weight of massive expectations back home. The first half speeds by, but neither team breaks the goal. The second half is a different story. Both teams realize the moment and try to seize it. England scores first. Owen nets his fourth goal of the cup after a great cross from Lampard. But with 10 minutes to go, Crespo scores on a corner, equalizing and setting the stadium on fire. The final whistle blows and extra time is coming up. The first ten minutes pass with both teams pushing forward but neither going for the net. Some rough play shows up in the box, as both teams believe the ref won't settle this on a PK. Then, with a minute to go in the first extra time period, Gerrard gets the ball after Heinze can't clear. He sees an opening mere inches wide and shoots. Upper left corner. Netting catches the ball. Pandemonium. 2-1. Call him Sir Steven Gerrard. England are champions of the world. And they'll be bloody insufferable for the rest of my lifetime.

If the World Cup were March Madness, England would be... Obnoxious fans who don't seem to realize that the rest of the world doesn't think their team is all that great. Living on old time memories. One ridiculous scandal after another. Some craziness about having a coach with loyalty to the program. Hell, a lot of the players even look similar. England is Indiana. But this year they make a run.

They won't be lifting Gerrard on their shoulders, they'll all be walking on air that high.