The uncomfortable truth is that watching England at the World Cup finals has been an excruciating chore since the point at which David Beckham jumped out of a tackle which led to Brazil’s deserved leveller in the last-eight match in Shizuoka.
Twelve long years and five international tournaments have passed since the point at which England stood just three quarters of an hour away from a possible last-four tie with Turkey, and the Three Lions have been on a steady but inexorable downward trajectory since.
It has been a sapping process that has brought much hand-wringing and accusations – the latest FA commission being the most recent attempt to correct it – but little in the way of tangible results.
Critics will point out that England’s achievements in World Cup finals have never matched the strength of the domestic league and they would have a point. One semi-final appearance since 1966 puts them in league with South Korea, Croatia, Bulgaria, Sweden and Portugal – who have all managed the feat since Italia 90.
The last eight might well be the nation’s natural constituency, but that is not really why a pall of depression has hung over England since 2002. It is the manner of the performance in each of the nine games that have followed that 2-1 defeat to Brazil which feels so unacceptable: each one of them unsatisfactory in its own way.
For the record, England’s wins in the World Cup since 2002 are against Paraguay, Trinidad & Tobago, Ecuador and Slovenia. They’ve drawn with the US, Algeria and Sweden and lost twice, to Portugal and Germany.
At all points their football has felt leaden and burdened. They have departed the party offering nothing: not a vision of how to play attacking football and certainly not having contributed anything akin to the excitement of our domestic league.
You could make a case for Joe Cole’s wonderful volley against Sweden being one of the goals of the tournament in Germany, but it was an isolated moment of skill in a competition where England never flowed or played at any kind of tempo. They were even worse in 2010, ceding possession far too easily against Algeria, the US and Germany. Fabio Capello looked driven to distraction.
In the face of this mountain of evidence, why should we expect this to be any different for Roy Hodgson and England?
Well, for all the criticism levelled at him for downgrading expectations, Hodgson has at least exhibited the sort of logic and clear thinking that seemed to depart Capello in the run-up to South Africa. He has picked the best players for the squad, taken tough decisions and tried to develop a discernible style.
It won’t win England the tournament – they won’t even get close – but if he follows his instincts the Three Lions might actually contribute something of substance, which would be a start. It would be fantastic to think that a chance might be taken on Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley, who have nothing to lose in this arena.
Hodgson has been portrayed as conservative but remember, he picked Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the opening game of Euro 2012. He might yet have a wildcard to play in Manaus and beyond.
A wider hope is for a tournament that captures the imagination. Battered by the Champions League and the rise of a small group of powerful European elite clubs, the World Cup is under threat for the first time in 30 years.
Fifa has been tricked by its own success, believing that they could alter the format and ship it around the globe without detracting from the product, but there have been significant errors in scheduling and marketing in recent years which have turned off savvy supporters.
Most will look at the corruption accusations that have been levelled at the Qatar 2022 World Cup, but logistically, Fifa have turned what should be the easiest sell in sport into a tournament that has lost its shine.
South Africa was a righteous host but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the right one. The tournament – played against the backdrop of the darned Vuvuzela – was a woeful advertisement for international football with too many laborious matches and not enough stars.
Spain have been scintillating in two European Championships but even they seemed somehow under par as they marched to glory in Cape Town. Too many of the world’s best players – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to the fore – looked fatigued and injured and the conditions of South Africa were a problem. The altitude, the ball that Adidas had produced and the atmosphere-free stadiums created a tournament to forget.
Against this backdrop, we need Brazil to be a success on and off the pitch. World Cups are ingrained on the memory by moments of magic, villainy or sheer, breathtaking audacity, and what is required for this edition to make its mark is for some of the best players in the world to give us their best.
It helps that that we have strong hosts. The best competitions tend to be when the nation’s team go deep into the tournament, and Brazil can set the benchmark high tomorrow against Croatia in a game that carries great interest.
A convincing performance from the hosts demands a response from the rest, and Germany – who play Portugal in their opening game – and Spain, who take on Holland, might take up the baton.
Much is made of the prospect of someone emerging from the unknown to capture a global audience, but it is the established stars and the best teams who define a World Cup.
South Korea and Turkey made a fine story in 2002 but it was forgettable – not something that you could say about the great France side of 1998 or moments of rare brilliance like Dennis Bergkamp’s wonderful volley in Marseille.
Notwithstanding an unexpected surge from England my desired last four would be Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain.
They are the world’s best quartet in terms of calibre of players and would make worthy semi-finalists. Their passage to the latter stages would also surely dictate that their best players had an impact on the tournament, which is what is required to restore to the lustre to this fantastic competition.