England return to the European Championships after an eight-year absence with new manager Roy Hodgson hoping to improve on what is a woeful record in the finals for one of Europe’s traditional stronger soccer nations.
England are the only European country to have won the World Cup, but never be crowned European champions and following a spate of injuries, there are very few indicators suggesting that England’s disappointing European record will improve this month.
Whether Hodgson, 64, named on May 1 as England’s new permanent manager following the departure of Fabio Capello in February, can bring success remains one of the many unanswered questions facing the Three Lions this month.
In eight finals appearances since 1968, they have only reached the semi-finals twice — in 1968, when only four teams took part in Italy, and in 1996 when they hosted the tournament.
Typically for England, though, the buildup has been blighted by injuries, with Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Gary Cahill all sidelined, while Rio Ferdinand was ignored as Cahill’s replacement by Hodgson, who preferred Liverpool youngster Martin Kelly instead, provoking the first real row of his reign.
The responsibility for leading England to success passed to Hodgson on May 1 only weeks before their Group D campaign kicks off against France in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Monday.
Further games against Sweden in Kiev on Friday next week and co-hosts Ukraine in Donetsk on June 19 are also considerable obstacles for England to overcome.
One note for optimism perhaps is that England looked organized at the back in Hodgson’s first two friendlies in charge, which both ended in 1-0 wins against Norway and Belgium. They may not have been pretty displays, but England looked hard to break down at least.
The immediate target for Hodgson is to ensure there is no repeat of England’s dismal performances at the 2010 World Cup finals, where they went out to Germany in the round-of-16 after suffering their worst ever World Cup defeat — a 4-1 thrashing.
Capello was widely criticized for those performances and many felt he should have gone immediately afterwards, but he stayed on and England regained their self respect as they cruised unbeaten through the Euro 2012 qualifiers, winning five and drawing three of their eight games.
The only real blemish in the campaign came 17 minutes from the end of the last match against Montenegro in Podgorica on Oct. 7 last year when, with their place all but secured, striker Wayne Rooney was sent off for a senseless kick at defender Miodrag Dzudovic.
That ultimately resulted in Rooney, a player with undoubted match-winning pedigree, being banned for the first two matches of the finals against France and Sweden.
The Manchester United striker, who scored more than 30 goals for club and country during the season that has just ended, will be eligible to join the fray on June 19 when England play Ukraine, which could well be their last game in the competition.
There is no doubt that England’s players, used to playing at the highest level week in, week out in the Premier League with some of the world’s biggest names, have the capacity to do well.
Hodgson at least, who spent 15 months at West Bromwich Albion, does have previous international experience, having coached Switzerland, Finland and the United Arab Emirates national sides in the past.