England's most important meaningless game

Richard Heathcote

England -- already eliminated -- face Costa Rica on Tuesday in what is, paradoxically, a vitally important dead rubber.

Whatever happens in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday, Roy Hodgson and his unmerry men are ensured of their place in history. No England side competing in a World Cup has been eliminated from the tournament after just two games. Even in 1950, when they ventured to this same Brazilian city and came away humbled at the hands and head of Joe Gaetjens and his motley collection of American part-timers, England were still in the tournament until they lost to Spain three days later.

This is worse than 1958, the last time England were eliminated at the group stage, when they drew all three games then lost to the USSR in a playoff. Worse than 2006, when the biggest impression anybody English made was Wayne Rooney, on Ricardo Carvalho's testicles. Worse, even, than 2010, a shambles so bad that it seared the memories of everything else Fabio Capello has ever done for every watching English journalist.

Yet the concomitant anger hasn't, well, concomitated. Roy Hodgson has not been turned into a vegetable. Roy Hodgson has not been summarily sacked. Nobody's being burned in effigy, and the headlines have been, by the standards of the English press, relatively muted. "England's Shame" is about as bad as it got, which Graham Taylor would have killed for. Martin Samuel, in calling for Hodgson to move on, seemed vaguely apologetic. Everybody seems weirdly calm about the whole thing.

There are two ways of looking at this, and each perhaps has some validity. The first and more forgiving view is that England have disappointed but have done so acceptably. That they were drawn into a tricky group; that theirs is not a squad over-blessed in defense; that they lost each of their two games to, respectively, a decent team and an excellent striker; that there have been enough glimmers in the performances of a few of the younger players to suggest hope for the future. That England, while not being very good, were at least not very good in a style both comprehensible and forgivable. This, certainly, is the view of FA Chairman Greg Dyke, who has confirmed Hodgson in his position.

The other, more cynical, more Anfield-flavored view is that Roy Hodgson is an expectation-deflation agent, a man who takes difficult tasks and redefines the parameters for success until they fall within in his limited abilities. That England should have been better, and that the nation isn't convulsed with fury at their elimination is indicative of this toxic, dampening Hodgeness at work. Anybody accepting this is complicit in a miserable weakening of standards. "Results color your judgment, color everybody's judgment," Hodgson has mused in the run up to Tuesday's game. Well, Roy, of course they do. That's what they're for.

There are decent arguments to be advanced for both sides, which is why the upcoming game against Costa Rica is, for a dead rubber, remarkably fascinating. The obvious thing to do in this situation would be to play the kids, or at least as many of the kids as can be crammed into one team. A bit of pressure-off tournament football for them, a glimpse of the future for the tired traveling fans and the millions still watching despite everything back home, and what would hopefully be an open, entertaining game.

Yet a loss here would sting in a manner quite unlike the other two defeats. Losing to Italy, four-time World Cup winners, is a thing that can happen. Losing to Luis Suarez (who is quite a good footballer); likewise. Losing to Costa Rica, though, even to a Costa Rican side that has deservedly defeated both England's other opponents and is therefore, by the rules of conkers, better ... no. Not allowed. Not a thing that an England side is permitted to do. It would also leave them bottom of the group with zero points from nine, which is not a good look.

Tuesday is the last day of England's World Cup, but it is the first day of the rest of Roy Hodgson's England career. This is his chance to show the country what they might, reasonably or unreasonably, expect. Results may distract from performances or they may reflect them, but here, despite the game being essentially academic, both will be vitally important as a tone-setting exercise for what is to come.

A win and a vivacious, attacking performance spearheaded by two or three youngsters, and England can leave their worst-ever World Cup in unseasonably good heart, buoyed by thoughts of what might be around the corner. Qualification for Euro 2016 can begin with a group of players whose first tournament ended in failure, yes, but with heads held high. Steven Gerrard might even decide to stick around for one more campaign, which Hodgson seems to think is important.

But anything else -- a fluky victory; a muddled draw; a desperate, incoherent, vulnerable mess of a loss -- and things might start to get testy. A dark tone would be set. There are 90 minutes to come against Costa Rica; there is still time for the fallout of this World Cup to match the results. For knives to be sharpened. For space to be found, in headlines across the country, for Roy the Radish.

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