Gerald Sinstadt: History stands between England – and Spain – in bid for Rio glory
WELCOME to the Monday column. The Sports Editor assures me you will all be bright and attentive – no weekend hang-overs, no long faces at having to get down to business after two days off.
I hope he is right, because the first lesson this Monday is history. And before you ask to be excused, it is football history. The subject: the World Cup.
On Wednesday, Brazil, the 2014 hosts, come to Wembley Stadium. The purveyors of the beautiful game versus the inventors of the game. Beauty and the Beast? Let's not pursue that idea.
You might prefer guidance about whether to save your pennies with the intention of following our lads to Brazil next year.
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Bearing in mind, of course, we haven't yet qualified.
Bearing in mind, too, that Brazil is a huge country and not every game will be in Rio.
And bearing in mind we have only won the thing once, and that was 47 years ago and counting.
And bearing in mind that then we were not only at home, we played every game in London.
That's a lot of bearing in mind, but it is important. This is why.
The tournament has been staged 19 times. Five countries – Uruguay, West Germany/Germany, Italy, Brazil and Argentina – are multiple winners. They account for 16 of those victories. The total is made up by the one-offs: England, France and Spain.
There are hard luck stories. In 1958, the Munich disaster robbed England of Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards, and Tommy Taylor. Any nation would have been weakened by losing key players from defence, midfield and attack.
Billy Wright laboured heroically with the team he led, but he hadn't been helped by the selectors. The squad was 20-strong although there was an entitlement for 22. Among those not selected were Stanley Matthews and Nat Lofthouse. Would they have made a difference if England had met a Brazil team including the Santos brothers, Didi, Vava, Garrincha, Pele and Zagalo? Maybe not.
Then there was 1970 and a quarter-final defeat in Leon by West Germany.
Gordon Banks, the world's best goalkeeper of his time, was ill on the morning of the match and Peter Bonetti deputised.
That was probably not why England lost; Bonetti was good. But Alf Ramsey misjudged his substitutions, taking off Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters. Germany unleashed Jurgen Grabowski, and his pace proved decisive in extra time.
Had England progressed, would they have overcome a Brazil team now including Carlos Alberto, Gerson, Jairzinho, Tostao, Pele and Rivelino? Maybe. Maybe not.
Of all the hard luck stories, France might claim top place, beaten on penalties after extra time in the 1982 semi-final in Seville. The game is remembered for a brutal foul on Patrick Battiston by West Germany's goalkeeper, Harald Schumacher, when the score was 1-1.
Although the Frenchman had to be taken to hospital, the Dutch referee took no action.
That was a France team with a midfield from all our dreams.. Alongside Michel Platini were Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse and Bernard Genghini, gifted individually, superb in combination.
So blissfully did they play on that hot Spanish night, so unjust was the outcome, that there were many neutrals who rejoiced when Italy won the final.
The French had notable compensation in 1998, beating Brazil in the Paris final. There were fine individuals in that side, Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly and others; Patrick Viera played only the last 15 minutes as a substitute. But was it better than the team who lost in 1982? Maybe not.
There is a thread here which should be remembered when we look at likely contenders next year. Strong teams are often built round a nucleus of components that together are more than the sum of their parts.
France in 1982, for example. England in 1966 had Gordon Banks, Bobby Charlton and Alan Ball, but the heartbeat came from West Ham: Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst.
West Germany in 1974 had Franz Beckenbauer at the back, Gerd Muller in attack, and in between Ulli Hoeness, Rainer Bonhof and Wolfgang Overath.
To understand how good they were you need only consider that their opponents in the final – Johann Cruyff's Holland. That was arguably an even more starry side, but Holland's stars don't cohere, they collide.
The latest dazzling constellation in the football firmament are Spain, corruscating around the Barcelona nucleus. Next year, they will be seeking the rare achievement of defending the trophy.
The World Cup has never returned to Europe from South America. Spain would probably have to overcome Brazil, the five-times winners playing in front of their own supporters.
As for England, where is the natural nucleus on which Roy Hodgson might build? Jack Wilshere and Wayne Rooney hardly constitute a golden generation.
So what does history tells us about our chances? Well nothing very encouraging. This is not being unpatriotic. It is simply remembering 47 years of unpalatable history.