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Mortality is creeping up on this England. For almost a decade Germany 2006 has been marked as the target, the time when this most gifted of generations would peak, but now the horizon is here, and England are playing dismally. On Saturday they play their quarter-final against Portugal, and this time there will be no thoughts of a rosy future to mitigate failure.
It is one thing for 31-year-old Gary Neville, for whom this is almost certainly a last World Cup, to speak of last opportunities, but when Steven Gerrard – who at 26 can reasonably expect at least one more tournament – echoes the line, it becomes apparent just how firmly held is the belief that this is a chosen generation.
“If you are realistic,” he said, “it could be even more difficult to win the World Cup in South Africa [in 2010]. This might be our best chance for a long time.”
In the past, David Beckham has expressed a curiously solipsistic world view in which present setbacks are accepted as trials to be overcome in the future. Given he missed the first penalty in England’s shoot-out defeat to Portugal in the 2004 European Championships – and that Luiz Felipe Scolari not only remains their coach but was also Brazil’s coach when they beat England in the quarter-finals of the last World Cup – it might have been expected that he would talk of his desire to put right his past failure, as he did in scoring a penalty against Argentina four years after being sent off against them in 1998.
This week, though, he has been insisting “you can’t think about what’s gone on in the past” and noting that “these opportunities don’t come round very often”. Perhaps passing 30 and the injury to Michael Owen have brought home just how fragile a career in football is.
Owen’s absence – exacerbated by a squad selection that included just three proven forwards – highlights the dangers of investing too much faith in one generation. The course of football never runs smooth, as Portugal know better than most.
Friday was the 15th anniversary of their victory over Brazil to retain the World Youth Cup, and still they wait for that side, its representatives now reduced to a solitary Luís Figo, to reproduce their success at senior level. He should play against England, but midfielders Deco and Costinha are both suspended, while Cristiano Ronaldo is a significant injury doubt. England’s Frank Lampard, having turned his ankle in training on Thursday should be fit to start.
Portugal’s example should be enough to convince England that a sense of destiny, such as that expressed by defender John Terry last week, is not enough. Sides have won the World Cup after stuttering starts, such as England in 1966, but playing badly in the early stages is not a necessary condition of having a good tournament, as Gerrard acknowledged.
“We can’t play like this and win the World Cup,” he admitted. “You are now going to come up against sides who won’t let you beat them playing like that. This is the time when you need to raise your performance because you won’t get away with the way we have played. We need to pass the ball better and keep the ball better. I think we are trying to force the play too much.”
The positive take on things is that England have yet to hit top form precisely because they have faced sides who can be beaten “playing like that”. As Neville, ever the laureate of chippy pragmatism, pointed out, it has been hard to feel England are yet involved – the poverty of the opposition, and the defensive tactics they have faced have made the games seem like a series of preparatory friendlies.
If Sven-Goran Eriksson’s reign has taught us nothing else, it is that England find it hard to take friendlies seriously. On Saturday, though, it all gets very serious.