The Rio Report

The night Luis Suarez became Maradona’s spiritual heir, with the help of England’s defence

The Rio Report

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There is a widespread and entirely incorrect perception that the sole point of football is to score more goals than the opposition. In fact it is just as important to concede fewer goals. Football is a game of two halves, attacking and defending, yet much of the time we only concern ourselves with the former.

In a sense, that’s fair enough. Attacking: that’s the good stuff, the bit that stirs the soul of fans and the ego of players. No kid ever wanted to play centre-back in the playground; no crowd ever chants “Defend defend defend!” When Ruud Gullit coined the phrase “sexy football” in reference to Portugal at Euro 96, he wasn’t referring to Fernando Couto winning high balls.

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In some countries, particularly Brazil, it is a philosophical issue. That is all fine and correct, yet when it comes to winning – which rightly or wrongly has become by far the most important thing in modern football – attacking and defending are of equal importance. Yet still we allow our judgement to be skewed.

Brazil 1970 are seen as unquestionably the greatest team of all time, even though their defence was an improv comedy troupe. France 1998 are perceived as relatively modest World Cup winners, even though they had one of the all-time great defences and conceded only two goals in seven games. There are exceptions, such as George Graham’s Arsenal, but not nearly enough to even things out.

Before this World Cup, everyone got so giddy about England’s considerable attacking promise that they ignored a far more important point with regard to the fundamentals of winning football matches: that England had probably never sent a weaker defence to a major tournament. All are good club players, and Gary Cahill might be more, yet together they were always going to struggle against teams as talented and streetwise as Italy and Uruguay.

At Germany 2006 England had a back four of Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, with Gary Neville fit for the first and last games. There is a tendency to ridicule the memory of England’s golden generation, yet in defensive terms that’s precisely what it was. Individually, you could argue for each of them to be included in an all-time England XI. (A personal view is that only Cole would actually make it, though all have a case.)

When Cole, Ferdinand and Terry were on the pitch together England conceded one goal in 416 minutes of football. Yet all anyone remembers is that they stunk the place out going forward. This is fine only if you accept there is more to football than winning. The majority do not, however, and therefore it is reductive and perverse not to recognise the equal parts of attacking and defending.

Before 2006 England had wonderful defenders like Tony Adams, Sol Campbell, Des Walker, Stuart Pearce, Mark Wright, Terry Butcher, Kenny Sansom and others. Roy Hodgson probably wouldn’t regard any of them as world-class, yet he would certainly have them in his side.

Hodgson should have taken Cole in his squad, and probably started him ahead of Baines, whose seductive Fantasy League stats have blinded everyone to his defensive limitations. In an age when almost everything is questioned, the general acceptance of the decision to omit Cole verged on the bizarre.

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On the face of it, Hodgson might also have done more to persuade Terry to return. Yet we don’t really know the circumstances, how hard Hodgson tried, or whether he had good reason not to try.

Hodgson has certainly made mistakes. In doing so, he joins the list of every person who has managed at a World Cup. The selection of Danny Welbeck in an attacking position felt a bit like picking an inferior bowler because he bats a bit. It was dispiriting that the selection of Raheem Sterling as a No. 10 against Italy was made entirely with Andrea Pirlo in mind, and even more dispiriting when Sterling was moved back to the wing and spent the Uruguay game in anonymity. There were many reasons for England’s attack regressing so badly from the Italy game; the restoration of Wayne Rooney to a No. 10 role he can no longer play was certainly one.

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Yet of all these decisions, perhaps only the omission of Cole comes close to being a rank howler. So far, England – a developing side who are the third best in the group according to both the human brain and the FIFA rankings – have pretty much achieved par.

You are allowed to lose football matches to good teams. And certainly to brilliant one-man teams. There was the prattle of wounded knee before the game; with hindsight, the notion that anything – keyhole surgery, Phil Jagielka, Joe Hart – could stop the bronca-fuelled genius of Luis Suarez taking his revenge on the entire country of England was ridiculous.

He is the spiritual heir to Diego Maradona: anarchic, angry, as slippery as an eel and with the rare ability to simultaneously bend a match to both his will and his skill. Both goals – one deft, one vicious - were taken with magnificent certainty. Suarez has waited all this time to – in Maradona’s word – “vaccinate” the English.

He did not resort to skulduggery to leave England fans foaming with impotent rage, nor score the greatest goal of his life, yet the manner in which Suarez vanquished England felt like an homage to Maradona’s performance in 1986. This, to borrow Jorge Valdano’s phrase to describe that Maradona goal, was Luis’s personal journey.

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Maybe this time it was the left knee of God, which cured itself less than a month after surgery. Maradona had the Falklands War in mind in 1986. Whether Suarez had any right to bristle with such righteous indignation is a debate for another day. Adore him or detest him, what he did last night was a perfect World Cup story.

It even had one of those fascinating, sadistic twists to which top-level sport seems addicted, when Steven Gerrard created the winner for Suarez. It should not need such a mistake to highlight the increasing poverty of Gerrard’s performance at the top level. Yet even those who can’t stand Gerrard might have felt a pang of sympathy.

The man often ridiculed as Stevie Me surely deserves better than to be the subject of memes and GIFs in this way. Two months ago, with Liverpool on the cusp of the title and the chance to lead England at his final World Cup, Gerrard surely thought he was entering a period that would define his career. Be careful what you wish for.

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Hodgson has a big decision to make with regard to Gerrard’s place against Costa Rica. In pretty similar circumstances at Mexico 86, Alex Ferguson had the necessary courage to drop his captain Graeme Souness, who was struggling as much as Gerrard is now, for the final group game against Uruguay. It was the first time Souness had been dropped in his entire career. Hodgson is unlikely to do the same but it will be negligent management if he does not give it serious consideration.

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Even if England are formally eliminated, the Costa Rica match will not be a dead rubber. It will play a significant part in how history judges their performance at Brazil 2014. Ask those who appeared at Euro 88, when England lost all three group games. They played extremely well in defeat against both the Republic of Ireland and Netherlands but went into the final match against the USSR knowing they had been eliminated.

England played with the absent-minded self-loathing of a heartbroken man gazing at the pub spirits. They were thrashed 3-1 and history thus recorded their performance at the tournament as a shambles when it was anything but.

If England, say, beat Costa Rica 2-0, ideally with a memorable contribution from Sterling or Ross Barkley, there is a fair chance they will escape excessive criticism. It could, at this stage, be legitimately rationalised as part of a young team’s journey. If they lose, the rotten fruit will be readied. And, as Ashley Giles would confirm, it might even cost Hodgson his job.

Then again, Tuesday might turn into a glorious night for England. The circumstances required for them to reach the last 16 – Italy beat Costa Rica, Italy beat Uruguay, England beat Costa Rica by a couple of goals – do not stretch credulity in the slightest. Nor have England’s results or performances in their first two games.

From the moment the draw was made they were in big trouble. In the most tolerant and sympathetic sense of the phrase, the England team – and particularly the defence - is not good enough.

Rob Smyth

Rob is covering England for us during the World Cup. You can buy his book, 'Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team', which is out now.

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