Poor old England? Hardly.
Early on Sunday, in the sunny light of arrival back in Kiev and talking to some England fans, I wrote that England had reasonable hope for a tightly fought victory.
They said this was going to overtime and penalty shootout, and “they” means the entire world of soccer punditry. They were right. And there’s something terribly disheartening about that. The inevitability of that. The heartbreaking compulsory exit on penalties for a team of talent. The foreordained embarrassment of incompetence revealed, lack of technique highlighted and, frankly mismanagement shown for what it is.
Oddly, if you read and believed British media coverage, this game was bigger than the London Olympics thing. No, seriously, it was.
A clash of soccer culture, a clash of styles. But, given that an England team loaded only with low-key expectations had qualified for the quarter-finals with some purpose and a lot of perspiration, a break with the past was on the cards, a refreshing revival. A rebirth of the old-fashioned English style of 4-4-2 formations and reliance on a tall, strong striker.
Going into the game, England had lost seven out of 10 quarter-final matches at major soccer tournaments. The three victories were when England played host to the World Cup in 1966, at World Cup 1990 and when England played host to Euro ’96. Surely to heavens a break in the pattern was about to happen?
England had precisely one shot on target, and that was by Glen Johnson in the fifth minute. In contrast, Italy have had a goal disallowed, two shots hit the post, a ceaseless stream of near-misses and total control of midfield.
The gap in technique and lack of understanding of the midfield space was enormous. And that is what made this game fascinating, in an ugly way. Herewith, 10 things we learned about both England and Italy:
1 – At times Italy came close to being as much a crock as England. There was terrible finishing and chances wasted by the dozen.
2 – Wayne Rooney wasn’t fit. He looked less like a player who has only had one game in weeks and more like someone returning from a lengthy injury lay-off. He also looked like he needs to lose a few pounds.
3 – England manager Roy Hodgson put absurd, blind faith in Rooney. Rooney was rubbish and he should have been substituted after 30 minutes.
4 – Andrea Pirlo is worth 10 England players.
5 – Pirlo is the coolest man on the planet. After blithely bossing the game for 120 minutes he scored the sort of penalty that makes people smile. Absolute casual disdain was in that kick.
6 – It is impossible to control a game with mere effort and sweat. It took about 20 minutes for Italy to size up England and from then on it was a matter of England huffing while Italy dominated.
7 – Andy Carroll is a flash-in-the-pan player. He looked lost when required to do anything more than wait for a high ball aimed at his head.
8 – One always knew that Buffon would save a penalty and England would miss one. What one didn’t know is that Joe Hart would just close his eyes and dive this way and that, in perilous, desperate hope. Italy figured it out pretty quickly.
9 – As a general rule, England can’t pass the ball. There were perhaps three occasions in 120 minutes when a string of passes came together for England. You could tell by the near-hysterical reaction of England supporters that this was a rare, hopeful moment. Actually, the rarity only underlined the pathetic level of technique and ball skills.
10 – The worst lesson and most embarrassing, for England, is that the grim ordinariness of England’s performance reveals that English soccer has learnt nothing from multiple decades of failure.
And that’s that for England here. When here on the ground, in the swirl of the tournament, it is easy to be swept up in the hyperbole that results from one shock victory or cunning performance. One tries to avoid that. One looks for small signals and indications, no matter how fanciful, which come from being physically present.
Sunday night here in Kiev, pre-game, I watched the Italian supporters gaze benignly on the enthusiastic England fans. Small condescension. I watched Italian women supporters gaze in horror at a platoon of bare chested, beery English men strutting around.
Amusement and disdain were in the air. And rightly so. Ugly, embarrassing England emerged again.