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The World Cup qualification dance

Lee Wellings identifies the key stages involved in World Cup qualification, and how dramatic life is for an England fan.
Last modified: 16 Oct 2013 17:54

Apologies to those whose national football teams face a nerve wracking World Cup play-off.

And to those whose dreams of reaching Brazil 2014 are already over.

For I'd like to talk about qualification. As in achieving it, sealing the deal.

As an Al Jazeera Correspondent I must be neutral, yet all around me in England there has been the agony, the pain, then the relief at securing a place in the finals.

While i am too young - honestly - to have suffered with the failure to reach 1974, and was too interested in Scotland star Dalglish to care much about England's 1978 absence, the dismay at failing to get to USA 1994 was all-consuming.

It's how Danes are feeling now, the ninth best runners-up. They miss the carnival.

Since 1990 I have reported on England. Italia 90 and Euro 96 were glorious, memorable campaigns ultimately destined to fail. Other than that....we've been mainly in the 'theatre of disappointment' (as historian Rogan Taylor once described football).

And yet despite the phenomenon of the English Premier League, and club v country, and the lame exits from major championships, still the English football fan dares to hope, and more than that, to expect. Admitting England are not proper contenders is a step too far for many to take.

It's not just England, France have actually won trophies and yet experience the big lows. Failure in the play-offs will be unthinkable for them. Other top European football nations too have experienced crushing disappointment - the Netherlands didn't make the 2002 finals for example.

For England I think we can identify a pattern, and can describe the five key stages of a World Cup qualification journey.

1. ENTITLEMENT

If English football fans are honest they, we, still expect England to win the qualifying group. Every time. Never mind the failure to reach Euro 2008, or the disputes about lack of young English talent, there is a sense of entitlement. 'England SHOULD win, should beat Ukraine, should beat USA, should challenge for World Cups, should be a power.' So credit please for Roy Hodgson and his players for beating the reality. The reality is that in three games since Euro 2012 England have not really been any better than Ukraine. At a stretch one point better. It wasn't easy for England to win Group H by any stretch of the imagination. So why the expectation?

2. EARLY OPTIMISM

In this case a 5-0 win in Moldova in the early qualifier. Though I should stress than early optimism can disappear some time during the first game if the qualifier is 'tricky' enough.

3. GLOOM

From the home draw with Ukraine to the wet, delayed, ugly away draw in Poland the doom mongers take a mid-qualification grip. You'd need to be Spain, imperiously sliding through qualification, ditto Netherlands, to not start feeling negative. And then the England manager, nearly always a decent polite human being starts to get touchy, and jumpy and defensive and press conferences turn into bickering sessions. The message from the media is 'raise your game or we won't qualify'. Thanks for that, thinks Roy Hodgson, and there was I happy for us to remain mediocre!

4. THE FINAL WARNING

After weeks, months of being gripped by club football, the international window opens and the equation is subtly thrown out there.....

ENGLAND NEED 4 POINTS FROM SIX...AT LEAST! OR ELSE.

LOOK JUST WIN WILL YOU! BOTH GAMES.

We hear a lot about the failures of 1973 and 1993, and nothing about the times England have made it over the last hurdle. Doomsday scenarios are painted. it could be...the play-offs. The play-offs? Mighty England. World Cup winners as recently as 1966. Just the 47 years ago. Could be...in the play-offs. Horror of horrors. There is barely concealed questioning of Hodgson, and his players. The qualifying campaign so far is recalled in caustic detail, partly justifiably. But a glance at the table shows England, erm, top of the group. Calm down dears.

5. JOY UNCONFINED

Yes! Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeees. En-ger-land.....En-geeeer-land.

Wins against Montenegro, then nail-bitingly v Poland, take England through in front of 90,000 at Wembley Stadium. An hour before kick-off England officials and media representatives look as white as sheets. I feel my, extremely minor role in proceedings is to accentuate the neutral and adopt an airline pilot stance.

"You'll have noticed a bit of turbulence ladies and gentlemen, but nothing of concern, do fasten your seat belts and prepare for a nice safe landing." Translated, I told them England would win. Easy for me to say.

Hodgson looked like someone who'd left the gas on at home for most of the game and Poland could easily have scored the goals that would ruin England's automatic qualification. But, and the glass was half full, Hodgson attacked, and his decision to pick Andros Townsend, which 97 per cent of the know-alls in the press box, me included, wouldn't have done, was inspired. How easily we'd all forgotten Fulham 4 Juventus 1 than less than four years ago. This man has experienced the highs and lows of, well, a football manager. You win some....

I can't write about England in Brazil. Don't make me write about England IN Brazil and possible elimination in the last 16 on penalties.

I fancy Argentina, and Uruguay. But only IF they qualify!! Not easy is it? No-one has a divine right.

And for that England fans, especially the doubters, should say a polite, deserved, quiet 'thank you' to Roy Hodgson.

This column appears on the Insideworldfootball.com website where Lee Wellings represents Al Jazeera.