With all the confusion over whether it would be better for England to finish first or second in their group in Russia, here’s a look at when the Three Lions didn’t win the matches that they should have and paid the price later in the competition.
1962 World Cup: Hungary 2-1 England
This was the last tournament for long serving manager Walter Winterbottom, who had been in charge of the national side since they started playing again in 1946 following the end of the war. Hopes were high going into the competition in Chile, as England had been on a good run of results, including a record 9-3 demolition of Scotland at Wembley the year before. They were drawn in a group with Argentina, Bulgaria and Hungary, opening against the latter in Rancagua. It must be said this wasn’t the same Hungarian team of the 50s, with Puskas & co, that got to the 1954 final and went 31 games unbeaten. However England struggled in the Chilean heat from kick off, going behind in the 17th minute to a 20 yard shot from Lajos Tichy that went through the hands of experienced Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Ron Springett. England equalised on the hour mark from a Ron Flowers penalty, but the Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder was at fault for Hungary’s winning goal, a vital slip letting in Florian Albert to round the keeper and give his side the victory. A win against seeds Argentina and a draw against Bulgaria saw England qualify for the quarter-finals on goal difference, but the damage had been done. Finishing runners-up meant facing the world champions, Brazil, in the South American heat. This was a task that the English side couldn’t cope with and a 3-1 defeat sent them home, thanks mainly to a brace from the world’s best player at the time, Garrincha. If England had topped their group then Czechoslovakia waited in the quarters, and Yugoslavia in the semi-finals; both of whom England had beaten in the previous 12 months. Instead they faced a Brazil team who went on to win their second consecutive World Cup in 1962. Four years later though, England would have their time.
1998 World Cup: Romania 2-1 England
There’s no doubt about it, Glenn Hoddle thought England could win the 1998 World Cup in France, and when they were drawn in a group with Tunisia, Colombia and Romania, things looked very rosy indeed. After a comfortable 2-0 win against Tunisia in their first match, England were expected to win their second game, despite Romania being the top seeded team in the group. In a very competitive first half both sides pressed for the opener in Toulouse, with the Romanians clipping David Seaman’s crossbar. Two minutes into the second half however, disaster struck as Viorel Moldovan smashed a wonderful shot from 12 yards into the top corner. England were on top for the rest of the half and got what they deserved when substitute Michael Owen slotted the ball home to equalise and therefore becoming England’s youngest ever goalscorer at a World Cup, aged 18. At this point a draw was enough for England to stay top of the group on goal difference, but Romania had other ideas. In stoppage time Chelsea’s Dan Petrescu shrugged off a challenge from Graeme Le Saux (who seemed to be more interested in holding his own face than actually defending!) to score a scruffy goal through the legs of Seaman. England so nearly scored another dramatic equaliser when starlet Owen hit the post from 20 yards, but it wasn’t to be. Hoddle’s men next won 2-0 in a must win game against Colombia to secure a second round spot – but only as runners-up despite Tunisia nearly beating Romania to do England a favour, eventually finishing 1-1. Not winning their group meant that England faced Group H winners Argentina in the second round, drawing 2-2 and going out on penalties. If they had topped their group then the would’ve faced debutants Croatia in the second round and then an ageing Germany in the quarters, before possibly coming unstuck against France in the semi-finals. A tough route still? Yes. But one that would have been easier than Argentina, a terrific Holland side in the last 8 and then World Champions Brazil in the semis. In a European climate and with a very good squad still riding high off the back of Euro 96, to me this tournament has always seemed like a missed opportunity for England.
2002 World Cup: England 0-0 Nigeria
The 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan was certainly an up and down tournament for England. Sven Goran Eriksson had taken over 18 months earlier and completely shook the team up. He could also do no wrong in the lead up to the competition despite his private life being on the front pages of the tabloid press following an affair with Ulrika Jonsson…nobody cared! Beating Germany 5-1 away will give you that sort of breathing space with a football mad public. England were drawn in what was nicknamed the ‘Group of Death’ with old enemy Argentina, Sweden (who they had not beaten in over 30 years), and Nigeria. In the opening match against Sweden, England started brightly taking the lead from a Sol Campbell header but soon fading to a disappointing 1-1 draw. Next up Argentina, and a fantastic 1-0 victory thanks to a David Beckham penalty. Momentum was building after that fantastic win which England fully deserved. The country was buzzing and looking forward to another 7am kick off (British time) as they lined up for what was expected to be a comfortable victory against final group opponents Nigeria. They were in for an anticlimactic match in Osaka, with barely any shots on target and England’s only real chance was a long range Paul Scholes shot that came back off the post. It was simply boring and enough to make any of the English fans’ morning beer taste sour. It was quite clear that Eriksson had told the England players to take their foot off the gas, not take any risks or do anything stupid. In fact it came out of the English camp afterwards that Sven had preferred to finish second in the group, as to avoid playing Senegal in the afternoon sun in the second round. Ironically his homeland Sweden obliged by drawing with Argentina in their final game to top the group on goals scored over the Three Lions. Now when you look at the fact that England smashed Denmark 3-0 in their second round evening match this looked quite clever from Eriksson, but then they had to face Brazil in the quarter-finals in the afternoon heat that they had tried so hard to avoid. A 2-1 defeat to the eventual world champions ended the far eastern dream. If they had won the Nigeria game and topped the group then they would’ve faced Senegal in the second round, then Turkey in the quarters before having to eventually meet Brazil in the semi-finals. For me though, that’s the easier route they should have taken get the momentum you need to win the tournament, then anything could happen in the semis as they were both cooler evening kick offs. Very frustrating looking back at that World Cup, as a lot of what happened was in England’s hands.
2010 World Cup: England 0-0 Algeria
Like Sven Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello was very popular in his first two years in charge before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The public thought his no-nonsense attitude towards discipline was exactly what the pampered England squad needed to shake them up after failing to qualify for Euro 2008. That was until the tournament came around. Seeded in a group which contained the USA, Algeria and Slovenia, topping the group seemed like a formality for England. The opening match against the United States started superbly with a Steven Gerrard goal after just 4 minutes, but goalkeeper Rob Green’s infamous blunder saw England stumble to a 1-1 draw. With their fate still in their own hands going in to their second match against Algeria, things still looked positive, until they kicked off in Cape Town. This game truly is one of the worst displays I can ever remember from an England team. No real clear cut chances in the 90 mins, no change of tactics or personnel, just a team and manager devoid of ideas. It was all topped off at the full time whistle by a petulant Wayne Rooney saying into a camera, ”Nice to see your home fans booing you. That’s what loyal support is.” He was taking a jibe at the England fans booing the team off the pitch, even though they had travelled thousands of miles and spent thousands of pounds to watch that rubbish. England scraped through as runners-up after a Jermaine Defoe goal defeated Slovenia in the final group match. In fact they would have stolen the top spot had it not been for a last minute USA goal to beat Algeria in their match. This meant that England faced Germany in the second round and were duly smashed 4-1 (their biggest ever defeat at a World Cup) and despite Frank Lampard’s goal that was disallowed, the young German team deserved their emphatic victory. Had England finished first in their group however, they would’ve faced Ghana in the second round, Uruguay in the quarter-finals and possibly Holland in the semis. This route looks much more pleasing to the eye than an emerging Germany side that would win the World Cup four years later. You now hear past England players complaining about Capello’s discipline and the fact they couldn’t eat certain things. I hardly think that if Mr Capello had allowed them to have butter on their bread, it would have given them the edge to beat Algeria that day!
My final thought on this that I hope Gareth Southgate doesn’t take any chances and aims to top their group. The knockout routes rarely work out as expected, and if he takes it easy he could end up in one of these scenarios later on. Winning is a priority. Momentum is key.