Expectations give way to reality
There is a slight irony in the fact that the England football team could learn from one of Scotland's foremost novelists to fully appreciate its relationship with the World Cup in recent times. Dating back to the 1970s, Robert Louis Stevenson's edict that "to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour" really sums up the endeavours of the men wearing the Three Lions.
For perhaps the first time since the days of the 1966 triumph, England arrive at a World Cup virtually unheralded and with a general consensus that the national team would do well to emerge from the group unscathed. Not only is everyone aware of this, but most are comfortable with it. This is a situation so alien to most England fans brought up on a diet of jingoistic fervour every four years that some of us have had to revert to type and assume the attempt to downplay the team's chances is merely to lull the other nations into a false sense of security.
Why, there's even been a psychology coach -- Steve Peters and his "inner chimp" -- brought in by Roy Hodgson to further confuse opponents. So subtle is this ploy, some rumours have suggested England may even have the mental capacity to deal with a penalty shootout should they manage to get to the knockout stages. It is indeed a cunning plan.
That the "30 years of hurt" -- it will soon be a half-century and a new song will have to be written -- looks unlikely to be unchallenged again in 2014 isn't really a surprise. After all, everyone is used to that by now. What is shocking is that everyone is just so resigned to joyful travelling, happy that the real success is being in Brazil at all.
It's rarely been so.
My first blog as England correspondent for ESPN was for the 2002 competition in Japan and South Korea, where England arrived off the back of a last-minute wonder free-kick by David Beckham against Greece -- a victory that consigned Germany to the playoffs, lest we forget -- and a tournament where bitter rival Argentina were discarded en route to a quarterfinal spot against Brazil.
With Sven-Goran Eriksson in charge, Beckham serving as talisman and the memories of a glorious 5-1 win over Germany in Munich in the qualifiers in their pockets, England started the match with high hopes. Those hopes were soon dashed by a 2-1 scoreline in an insipid performance against a Brazilian side -- a match England led and Brazil played with 10 men for 30 minutes -- where it seemed as if the Three Lions were just happy to have a close game against the eventual winners.
In a glorious tournament in Germany in 2006, England again flattered to deceive. Emerging as group leader and defeating Ecuador in the round of 16, Eriksson's men once again faltered at the quarterfinal stage -- this time on penalties against Portugal. (Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher all missing their spot-kicks is even more unbelievable now than it was at the time.) This time, it was England that finished with 10 men after Wayne Rooney was sent off following that famous stamp-and-wink incident with Ricardo Carvalho and Cristiano Ronaldo. Eriksson resigned as manager, and Beckham gave up the captaincy.
This time around, though, the expectations are different. Frankly, there are none. Hodgson's intriguing blend of youth and experience has one eye on the future; the senior players can have a last hurrah, and the younger ones can learn on the job in preparation for Russia and Qatar. And yet, if England were to emerge from the group, a quarterfinal place would look like a good possibility.
But is there a need to fall into the old way of thinking? That old logic that dictates England should do well because they invented the game. Perhaps, or perhaps it's better to accept that this is a clean slate. Enjoy the journey and not worry.
In fact, forget the Scotsman. An old Japanese proverb says "It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive disenchanted." Yes, let's use that one. It's a mantra any England fan can understand.
Peter Thorne, aka Billy Blagg (@BillyBlaggEsq), is the author of a regular column at WestHamOnline.net and the East London Guardian.