So, we’re out, then. Bugger. It was looking so good, as well: for once a team like Brazil didn’t seem like an insurmountable opponent. They seemed human, and beatable, and that nagging feeling in my heart of hearts that we probably won’t do it which I’m used to experiencing every time England play against a big team was curiously absent. This was our chance: I’m writing this in the aftermath of Spain’s extraordinary exit at the hands of South Korea, which makes it seem even more likely that the real final was the match we lost. It was within touching distance, and now it’s gone for at least another four years. As I said, bugger.
The advice given by experts (I saw this on the news) is to not dwell on what might have been, but to be proud of what the team did achieve. And, truly, they achieved a lot. Nicky Butt made an astonishing leap from dependable but limited tough tackler whose most important role was to provide Manchester United with backup for Roy Keane to all action midfield dynamo with a passing range to match his defensive qualities. Pele named him as his man of the tournament on the eve of the Brazil game, which speaks for itself. Butt’s performances, above all in the Argentina match, were nothing short of exceptional, worthy of international players of the highest reputation, and hardly the kind of thing one would have expected from the man who in the not-too-distant past was linked with a £5 million move to Sunderland.
Rio Ferdinand, meanwhile, looked like the most assured passing centre-back in the tournament, and saw his valuation shoot by three fifths to £35 million. Again, his performance against Argentina was majestic, and his anticipation and strength in the air make him a hugely valuable asset. He was similarly strong in every single game, never slipping below top form. When one considers how young the likeable Leeds man is, and how assured and calm a head he has on his oh-so-youthful shoulders, one might reasonably say that he has the talent and temperament to go on to become one of the all time great defenders, as great as Bobby Moore. Certainly he is the best centre-back England have had since their golden haired captain of ’66, better even than Tony Adams, and he is reason for optimism.
Other players had fine tournaments. Trevor Sinclair finally looked like he believed in himself as an international player, and looks to be a good solution, at least in the short-term, for England’s left side problems; the full backs, Danny Mills and Ashley Cole, both looked assured and capable, Mills in particular rising above a great deal of negative press to prove himself the ideal replacement for Gary Neville; Paul Scholes showed flashes of his brilliant best, at times bossing the game from midfield like Bryan Robson in his prime. David Seaman, whatever he thinks himself – and there is no denying that he was at fault for the second Brazilian goal, as flukey as it was – was one of the best goalkeepers in the tournament, and kept us in it on numerous occsaions whilst also providing a huge boost in term of his experience which must surely have rubbed off on his relatively wet-behind-the-ears back four. If Beckham was a little short of his best form, never really producing a truly world-class performance – largely, perhaps, because of his injury problems – he remained a serious threat from wide and led the team with dignity, humility and inspirational courage. His penalty against Argentina – four years of torment washed away in one redemptive blast – was a moment of overwhelming catharsis, and his reaction will surely be remembered as one of the defining images of this World Cup.
And we passed the ball. Against Argentina, in particular, we really passed the ball. The fear that many held after the Sweden match – that Eriksson was intent on pursuing a negative long-ball policy throughout the tournament – were swiftly dispelled as we tore our old rivals apart. England were magnificent that day, and looked like a team that could win the whole competition, never mind the group. Anyone who can remember Euro 2000 – that is, all of us – could not have failed to marvel at the strides which England have taken under Eriksson, at the side they are now and the side they are on the verge of becoming.
Beckham has said, in the aftermath of the Brazil game, that this is a team that has come of age in the course of this tournament, and it is hard to disagree with him. We will certainly be among the favourites at Euro 2004, and the next World Cup – at which the core of the current team, Ferdinand, Beckham, and Owen, will be vastly experienced and surrounded by a generation of a rare and precocious talent which will surely have blossomed by 2006 – will be a realistic target. The possible line-up is mouthwatering, so please indulge me: England could step out on German soil in four years time with Richard Wright or Chris Kirkland, two ’keepers of enormous potential, in goal; Danny Mills, Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate, and Ashley Cole across the back, a defence which, if it grows as it should, could be practically impregnable; David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Owen Hargreaves and Kieron Dyer in midfield; and Michael Owen and any of Emile Heskey, Jermain DeFoe, and Darius Vassell up front. Also in contention for starting places will be the likes of Wayne Bridge, Wes Brown, Lee Bowyer, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, David Dunn, and Alan Smith.
What’s particularly heartening about this is how many of this very young group were involved in this tournament: out of my projected fourteen, five were regular starters, whilst another three were members of the squad, and two were only kept out by injury or criminal prosecution. Besides all these names, others are bound to emerge: England can look to the future with tremendous hope. Bugger indeed, but remember, the future’s bright: and, of course, we’ll always have Argentina.