England’s footballers are on the verge of the World Cup knockout stages despite a turgid goalless draw against the USA. But their lack of imagination and guile will surely temper expectations about whether they have the class to go all the way in Qatar.
The good news for Gareth Southgate’s side is that they only need to avoid losing to Wales by more than three goals on Tuesday to progress to the last 16. They know, too, that in almost every major tournament they are liable to put in the odd whiffer of a performance. But the loud boos from England supporters at the end suggested that this was a proper stinker.
Gone was the free-flowing football that blitzed Iran 6-2. That performance was so unusually bold and aggressive that Southgate was universally lauded for taking the handbrake off his young side. Here, though, England’s manager was altogether more cautious. The gear stick was pushed into reverse. The handbrake yanked back up.
Even so, England remain on top Group B on four points, one ahead of Iran and they remain firmly in the box seat to qualify for a knockout tie against either the Netherlands, Ecuador or Senegal.
“It wasn’t our best performance for sure,” admitted their captain, Harry Kane, afterwards. “We weren’t clinical. But overall we were playing a tough team, and we move on.
“It’s a draw at a World Cup. No game is easy. People thought after our first performance we would landslide every team, but that’s not the case. It leaves us in a really good position.”
England started brightly enough and had the best early chance when Kane’s shot was blocked by defender Walker Zimmerman. But the US team became increasingly assertive, with midfielder Weston McKennie shooting over from the penalty spot and the Chelsea forward Christian Pulisic hitting the bar.
If Southgate was hoping for a response in the second half, he was to prove sadly disappointed, even if the introduction of Jack Grealish briefly galvanised his side.
However the England manager was upbeat afterwards, saying: “It was exactly the sort of game I thought it would be, a good opponent who were very athletic. Some of the quality in the final third could have been a little bit better, but we’ve shown great resilience to defend against opponents who kept asking questions. We’re not going to roll through a tournament, and sweep through everybody without having nights like that.”
Before the match the Football Association lit the Wembley arch in rainbow colours to protest at not being able to wear the OneLove armband, which was designed to be a symbol of inclusivity and tolerance at a tournament in a country where LGBTQ+ community is criminalised.
The FA’s chief executive, Mark Bullingham, also spoke for the first time about how unspecified threats from Fifa, football’s governing body, had stopped Kane wearing the armband against Iran.
He explained to ITV: “On the day of the game they came here with five officials and they ran us through a scenario where at a minimum anyone wearing the armband would be booked and face disciplinary action on top of that.”
Bullingham said that the FA had backtracked on their initial pledge after being warned that any player wearing the armband could face a ban of multiple matches. “We are frustrated, we’re angry, we thought it was outrageous the way this was handled,” he added. “We wanted to show our support to the community and were not able to do so.”
However Bullingham was criticised by the former England striker Ian Wright, who said that the team should have gone through with their protest, regardless of Fifa’s threats. “It’s a valid point of view,” Bullingham said. “We felt that we couldn’t put the players in that position – the World Cup which many of them had dreamt of playing in since they were young – suddenly they may not be able to play a part in it.”
Meanwhile despite Fifa reiterating its promise that anyone wearing rainbow-coloured attire would be allowed into matches, a BBC cameraman wearing a rainbow watch strap was initially stopped by security and refused entry, while a Times reporter with a rainbow wristband was also questioned.
However, England fan Sayed Tangam, an IT worker from Croydon, said that he had been impressed by the kindness of the Qatari hosts. “The way everyone has behaved to us has been exemplary,” he said. “The four of us have booked a service apartment for $400 a night and we plan to watch three games in the four days we are here.” His friend Raja Hyderali, an IT consultant from Orpington, insisted that England still had the side to progress deep into the competition. “Player for player we have a stronger squad than in 2018, and if Kane stays fit, we can go really far,” he said.
True. But this will be a night from which England will want to quickly reset – and forget.