The treatment received by Mexico and England over the past 50 years has been so similar, yet so different. Both teams have struggled to achieve the sort of results that would impress.
But Mexico’s failure to do so seemed to be endemic. They had never been a major force, and was, it seemed, forever doomed to be second rate. Things were much different for England. As the inventors of the sport, England had a glowing soccer history and -- it seemed -- was therefore destined to be forever one of the mighty few.
But where Mexico fought to ascend, England faced a slow slide into mediocrity. For the English, 1950 was -- or should have been -- the year that decisively ended the myth of English superiority. For the first time England agreed -- “condescended” better defines its attitude -- to enter the World Cup. It was immediately made the favorite. But the truth was quickly and unarguably seen: the English were nowhere near as good as everyone -- especially the English -- had believed.
That 1-0 loss to the USA should not be seen as a tremendous upset. The English were exposed as rather ordinary. The world of soccer had been getting better and better, while the complacently snobbish English had made no progress at all.
But such was the English sense of entitlement that no stirring call to arms was heard. Things were allowed to plod along. Both by England, and by the rest of the world, which seemed quite willing to uphold the belief in English superiority.
A second -- and much more devastatingly specific -- setback for England arrived in 1953. The Hungarians came to London and toyed with England in a 6-3 win. Even that made no impression. Just “a bad day” was the feeling, and the return game, coming up in Hungary, would show who was who when it came to soccer. So England went to Budapest in 1954 and was torn to shreds. Hungary 7 England 1.
This time England did produce a worthy response. It took 12 years, but in 1966 England won the World Cup, apparently cementing its claim as the best. Far from it. This was not the beginning of English dominance. Over 50 years of futility followed. England’s World Cup performances in particular invited scorn and derision. England joined Mexico as a team that simply never pulled its weight. A team to be made fun of.
Mexico was mocked because it had never amounted to anything. England suffered the anguish of a fallen power, once almighty, now a laughingstock. Until now, when it seems possible that things are changing. One hesitates to play the soothsayer: far too many tales of future English soccer glory lie tattered in the dust.
But last year was a remarkable one for England at the youth level. Both the U-17 and the U-20 World Cups were won. England had never won either before. I watched the games with interest and became convinced (convinced myself?) that I was seeing something different. England playing a more skillful, more intelligent, less slam-bang game than we were used to. Even with touches of much needed artistry.
Where was this coming from? Well, the obvious difference from most of the previous 50 years was that the England youth teams were now coached at the St. George’s center, by young coaches who were part of the FA coaching staff. Coaches who were anything but well-known, certainly not famous ex-players: the U-17s by Steve Cooper and the U-20s by Paul Simpson. I doubt those names rings any bells.
Something similar seems to have happened with the men’s national team. The current coach, Gareth Southgate, had a solid but unspectacular playing career (including 57 caps for England).
Three not particularly successful years as coach at Middlesbrough followed, until he was fired in 2009. Southgate joined the FA’s coaching staff in 2011, becoming coach of the U-21 team in 2013. When England coach Sam Allardyce, after only 67 days in charge, was fired in 2016, Southgate became the team’s interim coach before being confirmed as its permanent coach in November 2016.
This was virtually an admission that the policy of the previous decade -- hiring the very costly foreign celebrity coaches Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello -- had been a mistaken approach. The long-sought and much-delayed quest for England’s lost glory -- glory that had been mostly imaginary -- was now in the hands of someone with decidedly minimal coaching experience.
Without any spectacular results, Southgate qualified England for Russia, where the team has performed well. Against far-from-fearsome opponents it must be said, but the significant thing is that -- as with the youth teams -- a more mature, a more modern approach to the sport can be identified.
The parallels with the successful youth coaches are striking. Like Cooper and Simpson, Southgate was largely a product of St. George’s, the “national football centre” opened in 2012. And like them, his coaching experience was mostly acquired there.
Those other glory seekers, Mexico, met its biggest World Cup challenge so far by beating Germany 10 days ago. For England the first big test comes Thursday against the formidable Belgians.
Mexico has - with considerable help from South Korea - moved into the second round, and England will follow. This is valuable success, but my feeling is that success cannot be sustained unless it contains two absolutely vital elements. One of them is psychological, and is therefore not soccer-specific: confidence in oneself, in one’s team, the belief that victory is always possible. The other is all about soccer: the matter of playing style.
Here we have Mexico which has always been blessed with a skillful style, has always had highly talented ball-players. What Mexico has lacked has been confidence. Some 10 years back I discussed this with Javier Aguirre, then the Mexican national coach. Yes, he agreed, “We have a fear ... but not of losing. We are afraid of winning.”
Players who feel they are not worthy of winning, who are afraid of the pressure and responsibilities that come with winning, are not likely to win games, especially big games. But big changes have come about in the past decade. Ten years ago it was rare to find a Mexican player playing outside Mexico. Today, on Coach Juan Carlos Osorio’s 23-man World Cup roster, 13 are with European clubs, three play in the USA with MLS clubs.
Mexico can now call on players with plenty of experience in top European leagues. The psychological problem is waning.
For England, there has never been a noticeable lack of confidence -- if anything, there has been overconfidence, leading to complacency. England’s problem has been its mulish devotion to a rather rustic style. We have had regular false dawns announcing the emergence (reemergence, if you like) of England as a soccer power. Maybe this is another one ... but this time there is some evidence of changes on the field of play. The younger players seem to be more composed when in possession of the ball. The shining light is surely Tottenham’s 22-year-old midfielder Dele Alli -- who could go on to become England’s first really world class talent in many a year.
Evidently, soccer is offering us a tradeoff: A World Cup without Italy, the Netherlands, Chile and the USA. But a World Cup that sees Mexico and England assuming positions of importance in the world soccer hierarchy.