Brazil 2014. As World Cups go, it’s probably the one you don’t want to miss – either as a supporter or a player. The tournament is being billed as a “festival of football”, full of “colour” and set with the backdrop of a “carnival atmosphere”. One suspects that these are just some of the clichés that make the 20th edition of the competition actually sound like something enjoyable to look forward to (unless you’re actually from Brazil but that’s a story for another day) rather than the act of over-dramatised trench warfare that modern football is often depicted as. From an English point of view, it’s the one party we don’t want to be looking in on from the outside.
With things looking tight at the top the current qualifying group, England travel to Kiev to face Ukraine this week. Three points for the Three Lions will mean that Roy Hodgson can pack his Havaianas and Ray Bans as a win will all but seal qualification and safe passage to Brazil with two ‘winnable’ home games to come. A draw would make things slightly more uncomfortable while a defeat will certainly set off alarm bells. Currently topping the group, England’s destiny is very much in their own hands and, while not an impossible outcome, it does seems unlikely that they will be missing out on the fun and games next summer.
However, it would be unwise to take qualification as a given. It’s exactly 20 years since England last missed out on a World Cup and Roy Hodgson will be hoping not to follow in the footsteps of Graham Taylor and the ultimately disastrous qualifying campaign for USA 94.
England were drawn with Turkey, Poland, San Marino, Holland and surprise package Norway. The Scandinavians started with a 10-0 victory over the hapless San Marino which seemed to set the tone for what turned out to be dominant qualifying campaign as they led from the front. Norway had played and won 3 games by the time they travelled to Wembley in October 1992. David Platt gave England a second half lead but Kjetil Rekdal’s stunning left foot volley meant that Taylor’s team could only take a point from what was their first match in the group. Playing catch-up, a Gazza inspired 4-0 win over the Turks, a 6-0 thumping of San Marino and another 2-0 win in the return fixture in Turkey meant England were joint top of the group with Norway and Holland by the time the Dutch came to Wembley in March 1993.
A stunning John Barnes free kick gave England an early lead before David Platt doubled the advantage. A young, promising striker by the name of Dennis Bergkamp pulled one back with a delightful volley just before half time. Just as England looked on course for what would have been a valuable victory, Des Walker was beaten for pace by the electric Mark Overmars and the Sampdoria defender ended up pulling his opponent to the ground. Replays suggested the initial contact took place outside the box but with just five minutes to go, the referee awarded a controversial penalty to the Dutch which Peter van Vossen dispatched with little fuss. This minor setback turned into something of a catastrophe just a month later as England could only manage a 1-1 draw in Poland, thanks to a late Ian Wright equaliser, before suffering a damaging a 2-0 defeat in Norway courtesy of goals from Oyvind Leonhardsen and Lars Bohinen – two players who would later play in the Premier League.
In order to top the group, England knew they needed maximum points from their remaining games. A comfortable 3-0 win over Poland at Wembley provided hope but with Norway also beating the same opponents shortly after, it was a showdown with Holland for second place. The penultimate group match saw England travel to Rotterdam level on points with the Dutch and knowing a draw was the absolute minimum they would realistically be able to get away with. In what was a tense encounter, things seemed to be going to plan as the score remained goalless going into the second half. Then with about half an hour to go, a speculative Tony Dorigo long ball was misjudged by Ronald Koeman and David Platt found himself in on goal. Koeman then cynically pulled Platt to the ground to prevent him from giving England a shock lead. The only decision that would have made sense would have been a red card but German referee Karl-Josef Assenmacher only saw fit to issue a yellow. The resulting free kick came to nothing and mere moments later, in the cruelest twist of fate, Holland themselves won in free kick in the exact same position at the other end of the pitch. Of course, it was the man who should have been sent off who would step up and break England hearts as he delicately lifted the ball into the top corner. Even watching it now, the ball seems to travel in slow motion as David Seaman desperately sprawls across the goal fruitlessly trying to stop it going in. Dennis Bergkamp soon scored a second against his future Arsenal teammate and travel agents up and down the country lamented the fact that it now looked likely that most English football fans would be doing their best to avoid taking any trips to America the following summer.
Going into the final game against whipping boys San Marino, things were desperate for Taylor’s team. To have any chance of qualification, England needed Poland could beat Holland – the very same Poland who had lost 4 in a row since that unlikely draw against England earlier in the year. The Three Lions also have to make sure they beat San Marino by a margin of at least 7 goals. Sadly, even this task proved beyond them as a calamitous Stuart Pearce backpass in the opening 9 seconds allowed Davide Gueltieri to give the microstate an unlikely lead. The seven England eventually did score in response ultimately proved fruitless as Holland quite easily dispatched of Poland 3-1 to join group winners Norway at the World Cup.
Fast forward to the present day. Just one point separates England, Montenegro and Ukraine at the top of the group. Anything less than a win in Ukraine and the home game against second placed Montenegro in October will take on even greater significance. England’s final match is then against Poland who themselves could be back in contention if they beat San Marino as expected. England will be favourites going into all three remaining games but having only managed to draw against each of these opponents so far and only registering wins against the two sides propping up the group, absolutely nothing is set in stone. The spectre of that 1994 campaign and subsequent failure should provide a cautionary tale about how costly it can be when you fail to beat the teams around you in qualification. Graham Taylor’s legacy is not something Roy Hodgson will want to emulate.