24 Jun 2012

England following Italian model for tournament success

England are gathering momentum ahead of the Euro 2012 quarter-final clash with Italy in Kiev, John Anderson, Channel 4 News’s man inside the team camp reports.

If the pre-tournament doubters were to be believed, England would have spent Euro 2012 training in a dilapidated non-league, ground, bereft of sleep due to 24-hour party people, suffering racial abuse from thuggish locals and heading home in ignominy at the end of the group stage.

Instead an unbeaten, motivated and happy squad stand on the threshold of becoming only the fourth ever to represent the Three Lions in a major tournament semi- final. So, where did it all go right?

Though traditionally not an organisation renowned for its enterprise and innovation, the FA can take much credit for learning the lessons of two years ago and putting the squad in an environment in which the whole event lives and breathes around them. And, of course, in Roy Hodgson they have appointed a coach who understands the nuances and rhythms of tournament football and has very quickly got to the pulse and heartbeat of his players.

Suddenly we have a squad that can get down to the serious business of winning football matches without losing the ability to smile and whose “greater than the sum of its parts” attitude has engendered a gathering momentum and the belief that, even if we may not be the most expressive team in the tournament, we sure as hell don’t like losing.

If parking the bus is the new total football, then this quarter final is unlikely to set pulses racing and there is already mention of the dreaded P word.

All of these are resources which Italy have been mining successfully for years. In the 46 years since England won the World Cup, the Italians have featured in six major finals. Everyone from Piedmont to Palermo and all points in between who are and aged over 12 will have crystal clear memories of tournament triumphs, and it matters not to them that the Azzurri rarely win plaudits for style or entertainment. Hodgson’s side appear to be tapping into these qualities to good effect; in three of the five games he has taken charge of, England have displayed the very Italian trait of stubbornly protecting a one goal lead.

If parking the bus is the new total football, then this quarter final is unlikely to set pulses racing and there is already mention of the dreaded P word should the respective charabancs become not so much parked as clamped. England’s historic inability to propel a round object 12 yards into an eight-yard by eight-foot target with anything approaching consistency, is one of the great tragedies of our sporting heritage. In six major tournament penalty shootouts, only against Spain in 1996 have England progressed. To be fair, the Italians were hardly masters of the art until they won the 2006 World Cup when put on the spot.

Better then to spare us another heartache and secure victory in regulation time. The Italians will be without their best defender Giorgio Chiellini due to injury and don’t look as indestructible as they were in Germany six years ago, so if the shape and discipline England have largely displayed under Roy Hodgson is maintained and Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney can shine, there is no reason why the adventure cannot continue.

Italy of course have quality themselves; Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and Daniele de Rossi are survivors of the 2006 squad and, in Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, they have the Euro 2012 equivalent of Dumb And Dumber, whose behaviour seems to be entirely dictated by which side of the bed they got out of. An Italian journalist informs me that Cassano is “ten times madder than Balotelli” which suggests he is likely to score a stunning overhead kick and then get sent off for running naked around the pitch and out into the streets.

Happily there are no such characters in the England camp, where dilemmas are of the more mundane variety. Defender Joleon Lescott took to Twitter to seek suggestions as to which films he should watch next. How about The Italian Job followed by The Sweet Smell Of Success?

You can follow John Anderson on Twitter via @GreatFaceRadio