If the global game started in England, England rarely start continental and global tournaments well. Perhaps it is a microcosm of how England have lost their way, giving football to the world and then watching the world finding new ways to overcome and embarrass them.
If a theme of Gareth Southgate’s reign is an attempt to learn from England’s past, Monday’s game with Tunisia is a chance to put lessons into practice. The opponents have a pertinence. England have not won their opening game in a World Cup or a European Championship since a rather unimpressive 1-0 victory over Paraguay in 2006. Their last remotely clinical victory in their first game of a tournament came at Tunisia’s expense: 2-0 in 1998, with Southgate starting and Paul Scholes scoring a rasping goal to dampen the controversy over Paul Gascoigne’s omission from the squad.
But they have two opening wins in 36 years, a lamentable record since their last emphatic early statement of intent: the 1982 World Cup win against the eventual semi-finalists France when Southgate’s hero Bryan Robson scored after 27 seconds.
By way of comparison, Brazil arrived in Russia having won their opening game in every World Cup since Sweden held them in 1978. There are times, such as in Euro ’96, when England have eased themselves into tournaments and then improved. Too often, however, the initial mediocrity has been a sign of things to come. England tend to be slow starters which, coupled with a tendency to depart earlier than they would like, scarcely makes an ideal combination. They rarely peak at the beginning or the end, and sometimes not in between either.
Grandiose aims have often looked unlikely from initial kick off. This time, at least, Southgate has seemed more grounded. He said: “Our first aim is to get out of the group.”
They ought to. They did not four years ago when they found themselves in what their then assistant manager Gary Neville termed “a dog of a group”. England lost to Italy and Uruguay in their first two games and were out before they even faced Costa Rica. Their fixture list now, with Panama following Tunisia, looks the opposite of then. It seems a soft landing.
England are making the right noises about guarding against complacency. “Tunisia are a very good side,” Dele Alli told Fifa. “Some people in England maybe thought it would be an easy game but it’s definitely not.”
England are suggesting they have prepared properly. "I can say now everything we've done in training is exactly what we've seen in the videos from Tunisia,” said Danny Rose. "So there can be no excuses, no arguments.”
Some of the debate was removed early with Southgate giving his players advance warning of the side he has selected. Rose is expected to lose out to Ashley Young for the left wing-back spot, with Harry Maguire set to be preferred to Gary Cahill in defence and Jordan Henderson picked ahead of Eric Dier to anchor the midfield. Yet with few guaranteed starters in Southgate’s new-look squad, everyone has an incentive to impress.
If England’s build-up has been ideal, Tunisia’s has showcased their strengths. They lie at the back. They have only conceded five goals in six games, and just one against Spain last Saturday. Progressive as England have felt under Southgate, they have not been prolific, scoring only 27 times in 18 games. Alli and Raheem Sterling, who have a combined four goals in 63 caps, could do with relieving some of the burden from Harry Kane’s broad shoulders.
It only took Alan Shearer, the last striker to captain England in a World Cup, 42 minutes to open his account against Tunisia 20 years ago. The Eagles of Carthage can also testify to the significance of an opening win. Their 3-1 victory over Mexico in 1978 was the first by an African nation at the World Cup. Their players were put on a pedestal in their homeland.
“We have our 78ers, a generation of footballers who were outstanding,” said Abdelmajid Chetali, their manager at the time. But like England’s 1966 World Cup winners, their status owes something to their uniqueness. Tunisia have not won a World Cup match since then. England will hope that remains the case.
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