Little things

One of the issues I have with all the hand-wringing about England (although much of it is justified) is the dividing lines between success and failure in these tournaments.

Simply put, tiny variations in how the match played out could have had massive implications on the overall narrative.  So if that long Uruguayan goal kick had gone 10cm higher or 10cm lower or 10cm right or 10cm left there would have been a different headed contact and Suarez wouldn’t have been clean through, the game would have finished 1-1 and England would have been playing Costa Rica with everything to play for.  Sure, ifs and buts, but equally, it’s true!

By way of example:

1966 saw England triumph, and of course we know that this was due in big part because of Geoff Hurst’s goal.

That came at 2-2. It didn’t cross the line.  Had it not been allowed the game would still have been at 2-2, so Hurst’s hat-trick goal would not have happened.  West Germany might easily have won.

1970 was even more down to luck, this time against England.

Here, I think, we may have had a stronger overall team, but Gordon Banks went down with food poisoning on the eve of the the first knockout round with West Germany (it really is always them). Nevertheless, England, playing beautifully, moved out to a 2-0 lead.  But then two things happened: first Franz Beckenbauer got his side back into the game with a horribly soft goal, an angled drive that slipped under Bonetti’s arms and in.   Then Bobby Charlton was substituted, a move Beckenbauer was stunned by and exploited to the full as the game completely changed in momentum. (Beckenbauer had been marking Charlton and had been quiet).   Uwe Seeler scored in the 82nd minute to make it 2-2 and Gerd Muller won it in Extra Time.

England were cruising, and without the mysterious Banks incident (someone put something in his drink, I have read) the game would surely have taken a completely different course.  Even then, Bonetti was a good goalkeeper, but his inexplicable lapse let the Germans back into it.  Without these tiny massive moments England would have had a semi-final against Italy, and then the opportunity to meet Brazil in the final.

1986 Never mind that England lost 1-0 to Portugal, drew 0-0 with Morocco, and only then saved face with the trouncing of Poland.  The big news here is how they lost to Argentina.  Diego Maradona scored the opener with his hand.

Now, England might have lost this one anyway, but had the goal been disallowed (or had Steve Hodge cleared the ball with any sort of competence) then the game would still have been 0-0.  Anything might have happened.  That was as good an England team as we’ve seen in recent years, and victory there would have set up a semi-final against Belgium, then perhaps a final against West Germany.  The finest of margins, folks.

1990 is retrospectively regarded as a triumph, but for a time England were awful. We drew with Ireland, then with Holland, and only a Mark Wright header beat Egypt.  This set up a knockout against Belgium, and on 119 minutes, e.g. a minute before penalties, David Platt struck a wonder goal to win it.

This is just stupidly difficult. Without that single moment we’re looking at a penalty shootout.

And against Cameroon in the QF England needed an 83rd minute penalty to force extra time.

In the semi-final defeat to West Germany England went behind to an outrageous deflection from Andreas Brehme.

1994 saw England not even qualify.  This was in no small part because of a qualifier in Holland in which Ronald Koeman was first not sent off when he very clearly should have been, then scored with a twice-taken free kick which wouldn’t have been a possibility had he been in the shower.

You get the idea.  The narratives upon which success and failure are built largely depend on isolated moments of fortune.  True, the good teams tend to prevail, but with most international teams of roughly equal quality, often it is the odd moment of fortune that determines who gets the positive narrative and who’s the failure on 17 now blindingly obvious to anyone who’s ever watched a game levels.   The ball goes here, not there; the ref does this, not that; the player does something odd.   A huge part of tournament football is luck.  It really is.


3 thoughts on “Little things

  1. Couldn’t agree more.

    If you eliminated half the teams 3 games into the Premiere League season, and then went to elimination rounds, you’d have some pretty interesting results. A lot of the normally bottom half teams might come out looking better than usual.

  2. Yup. The randomness and narrow dividing lines between success and failure in short competitions are why many people here in the States are starting to understand that playoffs are basically a crapshoot and don’t really tell you who the “best” team is so much as who got hot at the right time.

  3. Yes I agree. Unless there is a huge difference in the score that is often the case. Even with all the stats in front of us the team with 40% of the play to the other teams 60% can sometimes win

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