Tournament football isn’t like any other kind. It’s not like the long slog of a league season and it doesn’t have the on-again-off-again character of a domestic cup. It’s ultra-intense, with unfamiliar individuals briefly crowded together to see what happens.
And success – comparative success, or even the ultimate success of winning the damn thing invariably goes to a team on a roll: one that finds its rhythm. A team that takes its tone from a single, dominant individual, not necessarily the one you expected, and comes together as one.
Successful teams often start slowly. But the great teams are the ones that grow; and watching the process is – partisanship aside – the most thrilling thing about the World Cup.
Seismic changes can take place in the blink of an eye. That’s what happened at the 1990 World Cup in Italy when England played Belgium: a match that comes to mind as England prepare to play their final group game. It will be the first time England and Belgium have met in a major competitive match since then.
It was a match when England went from dreary plodders to real contenders. And you can’t help but wonder if the same might happen as Gareth Southgate’s fresh-faced band of adventurers moves deeper into the competition.
I was in Verona in 1990 when England were playing Belgium… in Bologna. I was covering Yugoslavia v Spain, but I wasn’t disappointed: England had scored only two goals in their three group matches (against Belgium’s six) and little was expected of them in the round of 16. But after the match in Verona I found a bar near the stadium in time for the end of extra time.
Belgium were very good, with the excellent Jan Ceulemans as their main man. But neither side could score, and it was just about to go to penalties when Paul Gascoigne made one of his audacious runs up field. He was fouled, and took the free-kick himself from 30-odd yards. It was a very good one. David Platt, who had come on as a sub, scored with as sweet a volley as you will ever see… It was as if England had been touched by Harry Potter’s wand, and transfigured in an instant from honest battlers to swaggering potential champions. They were undone by penalties in the semi-finals, but it was a great tournament, a thrilling run.
That match against Belgium is a reminder that tournament football doesn’t require incontrovertible excellence from the first minute. Last time around, England didn’t win a match and failed to go beyond the group stage. In fact England have won only two knock-out matches at the World Cup since losing to Germany – who else? – in the 1990 semi-final. Southgate’s boys have the joyous chance of trying to improve on that record.
Belgium will provide a measure of their chances. They rank a dizzying third in the world, with Eden Hazard as their main man. England are 12th, so this is a match to approach with caution. What we must look for are signs of growth: when things start to come together, and individuals become a team. Sometimes more or less overnight. It’s what the World Cup is best at.
England v Belgium is live on ITV, Thursday 28th June at 6.15pm (kick-off 7pm)