Young England fail to deliver again
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Three thoughts from England's 0-0 draw with Costa Rica in the final game of Group D.
1. Disappointing end for England
England are out at the group stage of the World Cup for the first time since 1958. That was known before they played Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte, and with the Central Americans also already qualified, England made nine changes from the side beaten by Uruguay.
There's a perpetual clamour to blood young players, but are those players good enough? If nothing else, the likes of Luke Shaw, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ben Foster can say they've appeared in the World Cup. That's Shaw, 18, who told the media before the tournament that the first World Cup he could remember was 2010; Shaw who had planned driving lessons as he didn't expect to be going to South Africa.
Like the rest of his teammates, Shaw did a job. Problem was, the job wasn't anything special. At international level, England have few who are standout footballers, and not one who'd be considered world-class. Bores will tell you that the team lack passion or the other intangible factors that people who know little about football use to vent their frustrations when their team underachieves. The truth is more prosaic: England are good enough to reach the last 32 and the finals, but not good enough to do anything when they reach those finals, even when they play teams stocked with supposedly lesser players from much smaller clubs.
England have been one of the few disappointments in Brazil, yet their fans remain loyal and don't turn on them. A "Thanks Gerrard" placard was raised when Steven Gerrard came on as a substitute. That was just to the left of where one England fan was optimistically holding up an inflatable World Cup trophy. Like the players who applauded the fans at the end, they can all dream of what might have been.
2. Ticos show their teeth
"The bigger and braver the bull is, the better the bullfight gets," said Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto before the World Cup. "I want to see a happy Costa Rica, playing against the giants with a desire for victory."
It was easy to laugh at the sabre-rattling talk, but Pinto has had the last laugh. His side are one of only two countries to beat two former world champions in the knockout stage. Could they become the first team to beat three by beating England in Belo Horizonte, scene of one of England's greatest embarrassments: losing 1-0 to the USA in 1950, when a dishwasher called Joe Gaetjens scored the only goal? Not quite.
Costa Rica's players are all professionals, but their list of clubs are largely unglamorous European sides: Rosenborg, Club Brugge and AIK Solna or Levante. Captain Brian Ruiz plays for PSV Eindhoven on loan; watching him pirouette through England's young midfield was one of the game's highlights.
Costa Rica were the revelation of the 1990 World Cup, and they've been a thorn in the side of some of football's biggest names. They were strong favourites to finish bottom of Group D, but they've made a mockery of what was expected and finished top ahead of Uruguay, Italy and England. They would have been more satisfied with the draw than England, for they'd done their hard work and had little to prove. At the end, their players rushed to swap shirts with England players. "We're far from thinking that we'll be the laughing stock," said Pinto, a Colombian, before the tournament. He's had the last laugh. Pinto's dream is to play his native Colombia in the Maracana; unlike England's hopes, his dream is still very much alive.
3. Fans liven up the game
With England's match against Costa Rica rendered pointless by the Three Lions' early exit, it took the fans to liven up what initially looked like being the flattest atmosphere so far at Belo Horizonte's Mineirao.
The 56,000-seater venue has seen 40,000 Colombians partying after their win against Greece, a similar number of Argentines celebrating Lionel Messi's winner and then taunting the neutral Brazilians with songs about how Maradona was better than Pele and how Argentina was the superior country. The Brazilians' reply was instant: "We've won five World Cups."
The Belgians and Algerians added colour, but then both had much to play for. Two thousand Iranians almost saw their side hold Argentina, while supposedly neutral Brazilians at all the games supported whoever took their fancy.
England didn't have anything to play for, and Costa Rica could enjoy that most unexpected of luxuries. They could afford to lose and still qualify for the knockout stages. With the tempo largely soporific, broken by occasional flashes of excitement, the crowd needed to make it an event. With Prince Harry in attendance, they did.
The 5,000 England fans sang a rousing rendition of the national anthem before chanting "England till I die." Naturally; why would anyone change team midlife? They showed moments of good humour, changing the words of the unofficial England anthem "Three Lions" to "We're going home," and teasing the Costa Rica fans with "Shall we sing a song for you?"
"Ticos! Ticos!" came the reply, but by that time some England fans were already bored and had begun punching a beach ball around to cheers. Until a steward confiscated it. The fan who cheekily took it back from the steward was given a bigger cheer than any player. "Ing-er-land! Ing-er-land! Ing-er-land!" hollered the English. "Always look on the bright side of life."
The World Cup has been a huge disappointment for them, but at least they retained a sense of humour until the end. "Flights to Rio £1200," read one English banner. "Enjoying the ambience £2000." "Arriving after elimination. Priceless."
"Eliminados!" screamed the Brazilians, rubbing salt into a very open wound.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.