The Trouble With Accurately Assessing England

Looking ahead to England’s next match at Wembley in Group H World Cup qualifying, Steven Gerrard acknowledged that the Ukraine, who England narrowly beat in the European Championship this summer, will pose a greater challenge than Moldova did, warning: “It will be a different test on Tuesday.”

Two major injuries have thinned the ranks ahead of the game against the Ukraine: left-back Ashley Cole will miss the match and defensive anchor (and everybody’s favorite) John Terry remains questionable. Roy Hodgson will have some tough decisions to make, but reports suggest that Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and Manchester City’s Joleon Lescott will both appear in the starting XI.

England also has some young talent in Tom Cleverley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, both of whom contributed in England’s rout of Moldova last week. Can Hodgson ride this momentum and keep everyone’s spirits high heading into this week?

Honestly, does it matter? According to FIFA’s most recent international rankings, England is the third-best football team in the world. Just think about that for a second. England. Third best. They could win or lose against the Ukraine with a twenty-point margin—heck, they could not even show up to Wembley on Tuesday—and their ranking will remain the same. The reason their ranking won’t budge is because it’s based on the idea of England, not on the actual England.

The idea-England’s over-inflated, unbridled optimism, compared to the actual England’s equal but opposite cynicism, is what makes the Three Lions so difficult to write about. They always have a good squad on paper, but they can never seem to estimate themselves just quite right as their pendulum swings ever-wildly; after a win like last week’s 5-0 trouncing of Moldova they start talking about conquering the world, but after a loss they throw their hands up and sigh that all is lost. In both instances they’re partly correct.

For example, Gerrard has recently hinted (presumably because of England’s previous victory) that his side could return home from Brazil in 2014 with the trophy. This claim seems as fatuous as it is assuming, but hey, they’re ranked third! Considering that fact, all of a sudden Gerrard’s claim seems downright plausible, until you remember that he’s talking about the same old England—i.e. the idea of England, the paper tiger (er, lion) with the third-most schizophrenic fans in the world (if FIFA were to rank such a thing).

Perhaps when writing about England from now on, I should seek solid middle ground by heeding the advice given by personified Temperance in the medieval dialogue The Custody of the Soul: “People should be anxious and concerned about both… the hardship of suffering and the softness of pleasure.”

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