England are out, in case you hadn’t already heard. In events that are simultaneously shocking and predictable, Hodgson’s men have been sent home from Brazil after just eight days; this elimination the earliest we’ve ever succumbed to underachievement at a World Cup. England’s performance against Uruguay was very poor last night, the reasons for defeat so obvious and so characteristic of what is lacking in the team that they hardly merit further discussion. In fact, I think I’d bore myself writing about them.
From England’s misery, though, springs perhaps the best underdog story of the Brazil World Cup so far: Costa Rica’s brilliant qualification from Group D. It has been written, said and tweeted since their victory over Italy in Recife this evening that it would be unfair to suggest Costa Rica have been “plucky” or “brave”, as underdogs are so commonly categorised. Costa Rica showed exactly what England, Spain – and today, Italy – have failed to display in both of their ties against strongly favoured Uruguayan and Italian opponents: an energy and desire to play and win for their country. They were magnificent in both games and are through to the last sixteen of the World Cup for the first time in their history. It will be fascinating to see how far they can go with such a strong team ethic and some very skilful individuals. One thing is for sure: they ought to be considered favourites in the final group game against England.
Whilst it would be most pleasant to wax lyrical about the remarkable nature of Costa Rica’s success, there is another question that requires attention. With Spain and England out of the World Cup, both slain at the first hurdle, it seems the discussion about fallen “Golden Generations” is rearing its head once again, just days after the English media was abuzz with chatter about the youthful promise of the performance against Italy.
It’s difficult to know how to define a “Golden Generation” given that it is a label seemingly attached to any team laden with talented individuals. It has been suggested over the last 48 hours that both England and Spain will bid farewell to members of their respective Golden Generations after this World Cup; the two teams polarised in terms of success. By definition, Spain’s triple-title winning side is a “Golden Generation”. Those players thoroughly merit such a description and although their disastrous performance in Brazil suggests that their grip on world football has been well and truly relinquished, they have set the standard for international football over the last six years or so. The likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Sergio Ramos and out of form captain, Iker Casillas, will go down as integral members of one of the world’s greatest ever teams.
England’s alleged golden crop has more or less gone already, the World Cup in Brazil seen as the first real departure from the old generation that promised so much and delivered so little. Only two of the last remnants of that 2002-2010 “Golden Generation” were on display last night in Sao Paulo, perennial under-achiever Steven Gerrard and under-pressure Wayne Rooney once again hugely disappointed but more importantly, disappointing. Evidently, both England and Spain leave Brazil prematurely and in disastrous fashion but what’s the difference between the two nations’ golden generations?
First and foremost, delivery. Spain’s golden generation are known as such because they have achieved so much that they are worthy of the title. England’s press, typically, bestowed on the team this title as a token of the sheer potential that the individuals possessed. Put simply, that English generation – individually and quite clearly, as a team – were never even nearly as good as the Spanish triple champions. To call that generation “Golden” is nothing short of embarrassing, much like England’s most recent exit.
The reasons for Spain’s capacity to deliver are numerous, as are the reasons for England’s perpetual failure. Naturally, timing is everything when it comes to generations of footballers. Barcelona’s domestic and European successes provided perhaps the most technically gifted backbone to a national side ever seen when Spain entered Euro 2008. The group of players they had nurtured and seen blossom into world class talents had played together from a young age and the rest of the team was made up of Real Madrid players. Spain had a situation whereby their players knew each other so well, either as club team-mates or bitter rivals in La Liga, that cohesion was already a given.
England, by contrast, were and continue to be a team of individuals. The Lampard and Gerrard tedium comes to mind, as does the Ferdinand and Terry partnership. There was never a truly collective direction to the English golden generation and it would appear that there is even less so now. Technical ability is lacking, of that there is no question, but it is a willingness and ability to play for each other that is ultimately the most significant of the missing pieces. There was not a single leader on the pitch against Uruguay last night, not even Rooney or Gerrard able to raise their games at what may well be their last World Cups.
There has been talk about a Belgian golden generation emerging too. They were unconvincing in their opening game, which they won fortuitously after falling behind against Algeria. By virtue of the fact that they are everybody’s dark horses, they are no longer anybody’s dark horses but apparently genuine contenders, though surely their crowning is unthinkable, ironically. The truth is that Belgium are only being hailed as a golden generation because they are a team filled with talented individuals of whom plenty is known due to their exploits in the Premier League. Realistically, Marc Wilmots has a mighty task on his hands if he is to gel that team together and get them playing effective, let alone attractive, football.
So what makes a golden generation, if not a band of talented individuals? Of course, any generation can be golden. Greece’s Euro 2004 winners must be deemed a golden generation, as must Italy’s 2006 crop and then there’s Spain, of course. What links these teams is a joint belief and work ethic, with a sprinkling of good fortune and technical brilliance. Individual performances are vital, make no mistake. Zidane for France in 1998, Ronaldo for Brazil in 2002, Iniesta for Spain in 2010 – all marvellous individuals who compliment, rather than make, the team. Golden generations are not constructed but grown. They grow together and work as such, knowledgeable of one another and determined to ensure that this is their time to succeed.
England’s golden generation was not a golden generation and it is undoubtedly for the best that its final elements will now leave the set-up. It is, and has been for a while, time for some realism and acceptance that England will never be strong until our top clubs are full of English players and we get a generation genuinely capable of challenging foreign players not only for technical ability but for desire and cohesion as well.
Excitingly, whichever nation is triumphant in three weeks time will have a new golden generation on their hands. Maybe this is Costa Rica’s “Golden Generation”.