For most of us, it is a familiar pattern dating back many years or even decades. England’s footballers pull off an impressive result in a friendly or qualification before a major tournament and the hype begins. Famous figures are quoted saying that England can win the <insert next major competition here> and the media becomes more and more frenzied in its excitement. This year is no different after England’s 3-2 win in Germany and a familiar cycle will now begin, culminating in an analysis of what is wrong with England after their almost inevitable defeat in France this summer. The only really predictable thing about England’s participation at a major tournament is the news cycle which occurs around it.
Like any major football team, England occasionally records impressive looking results in international football. The best from outside tournaments would probably include the following five.
10 Jun 1984: Brazil 0-2 England
11 November 1987: Yugoslavia 1-4 England
1 September 2001: Germany 1-5 England
13 November 2005: Argentina 2-3 England
10 September 2008: Croatia 1-4 England
Generally what followed was disappointing in comparison with the expectations created by these matches. England failed to reach the last four of any of the five tournaments played immediately after those matches and, in 1988 and 2010, were unable to even get to the quarter-finals.
It is now 26 years since England’s only semi-final appearance when not hosting a tournament. Expectations were low before the 1990 World Cup after a home defeat by Uruguay and a draw with Tunisia in their final two warm-up matches. Again those expectations were based on short term results instead of looking at a long term indicator.
One type of ranking used to assess football teams are the Elo ratings which were originally developed by Hungarian physicist Arpad Elo for chess. Elo ratings for football reveal that England are a remarkably consistent team which almost always enters tournaments as one of the best 10 teams in the world and is usually ranked between five and eight. The only exception over the last 50 years was Euro 96 when England were the world’s 11th best team at the start of that tournament. Home advantage obviously helped to boost that but few would have argued with such a rating during the first two matches of the tournament, a dull draw against Switzerland and a narrow victory against Scotland which turned on a goal which was scored immediately after a missed penalty by the Scots.
The England team’s second lowest ranking was 10th going into Euro 2000. At that tournament, they failed to come through a very competitive group. The marginal differences between the teams was illustrated by five of the six matches being won by a single goal or drawn with the exception being a dead rubber.
Despite beating Germany in Berlin, England are a no better or worse team than usual just before a major tournament. England were ranked eighth on the publicly available Elo ratings prior to Saturday’s win which puts them amongst a group of five teams with Germany, Spain, France and Belgium who should be regarded as the favourites this summer. By definition, one of those five teams cannot reach the Euro 2016 semi-finals and will therefore be deemed to have failed.
England’s stable position in world football lends itself perfectly to a news cycle which hypes up expectations before a tournament and then acts as if anything less than meeting those raised expectations is a failure. If England was a bad team, claiming that they could win things would be absurd. If they were a more dominant team like Spain or Germany, the navel gazing about where it all went wrong would also not be possible. England’s consistency of being good but not that good is therefore a gift to the opinion writers who can repeat the cycle of hype and despair time and time again.