Iran, eh: who knew? Last time I checked it was the great Satan, locking up its own people, stamping out dissidents, and a centrifuge or two away from bringing nuclear winter to the world. Now it seems to be the West’s big hope in the war against the bearded hordes blitzkrieging their way through the Middle East. And as for their football team, we absolutely love them. They came just a few seconds short of severely embarrassing the hated Argies before a last-minute Messi wondergoal in their World Cup match. The crowd in Belo Horizonte clearly loved them and was full of highly photogenic young men and women in Iran shirts. Iran is a football-crazy country and if anything can begin to ease the awful stranglehold of the mullahs, it could be their football team. They’re managed by the tactically astute Carlos Queiroz, incidentally, who used to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s enforcer.
Unlike Iran, though, it’s hard to imagine England’s footballers winning many hearts. Tense, fearful and under-organised, they lost because they just weren’t much good. It’s not because there are too many foreigners in the Premier League; we weren’t that good either when there were hardly any foreigners in the top division. How many members of the England team would you put in a Premier League Select XI? Certainly not Joe Hart on his current form; maybe Rooney on the bench. And, er, that’s it. We had a poor defence; Steven Gerrard gave the ball away too much; and the midfield was overrun. Rooney ended his World Cup scoring drought in his tenth match. He has now scored one more World Cup goal than I have.
It was a youngish side, and might get better. But as Alan Hansen once observed, ‘You won’t win anything with kids.’ And in a poor few days for the national teams — in soccer, cricket and rugby union — we shouldn’t lose sight of how inexperienced the rugby boys are too. But that was a fine show in New Zealand, if a 3-0 defeat can ever be called that. The All Blacks have won 63 of their past 66 matches at home. We may be a bit disconsolate at being run off the park in the first half of the last Test on Saturday, but everyone loses in New Zealand. Over the series England tested them harder than anyone usually does, and Stuart Lancaster is building a side capable of beating them at the World Cup on home soil in 2015.
Though not if they make stupid mistakes. Saturday’s match was gone with four schoolboy errors in the first three minutes: Freddie Burns fails to kick off properly, then misses a penalty in front of the posts, then Mike Brown kicks out on the full, then the All Blacks walk through an enormous midfield gap in defence to give the extraordinary Julian Savea a couple of tries. And why can’t England’s rugby league exiles (Chris Ashton and Kyle Eastmond) tackle?
New Zealand were superb in the first half, while England were appalling and still only lost by 20 points. Over here, England can match the All Blacks. This is an inexperienced side: they say you need 800 caps to win a World Cup. Last weekend England had about 370. England’s most experienced players still have fewer than 30 caps (Tuilagi 25, Robshaw 28, Lawes 32) and that trio will still not have 50 caps by the next World Cup. Clive Woodward’s 2003 side had 50 caps in almost every position. Woodward had a poor World Cup in 1999. Lancaster has only been in the job for two and a half years, roughly the same as Woodward back in 1999. England might not win in 2015, but with the Under-20s retaining their world title last week, they will have a damn fine squad for 2019. Give Lancaster his five-year contract extension now.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.
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