You didn’t know whether to feel sorry for the lads, or relief, but this was the first time in years that an England team was heading off to an international tournament without their national media proclaiming that England’s moment had finally come. Here was a workmanlike outfit coached by the pragmatic Roy Hodgson and captained by the taciturn scouser Steven Gerrard, and nobody was expecting much of them. But diminished expectations, and the failings of others had worked in their favor, as they rode their luck to win their group by drawing with France and then narrowly beating Sweden and Ukraine. That earned England a quarter-final showdown with four-time world champion Italy, and an immediate renewal of fantasy talk in the English media. “Gerrard warns Italy will be no pushover,” they wrote. No pushover? That makes it sound like England were going into the match as favorites. “They are similar to us and it will be a very close game,” the skipper warned. “Let’s not underestimate them one little bit.”
How England could be talking down to Italy in this way is quite bizarre. Only Brazil has won the World Cup more times than the Azzurri, and the last time England beat Italy was in 1997 — and before that you have to go back to 1977 for an English victory. Sure, there’s a generational transition underway in Italian football that has seen a downturn in the team’s performance, but, sorry, Stevie, Italy is not really “a lot like” England at all. Sure, dogged defending took the Italy-England game to extra time and then penalties, leading some English journalists to brag that England had not been beaten in open play at Euro 2012. Sure. But England hadn’t really looked like it could beat Italy, either. England’s great achievement at Euro 2012 was that it proved exceedingly difficult for better teams to break down. That’s a creditable quality, of course, but it rarely wins tournaments. (Greece in 2004 being the one exception.) It’s rather like being the Stoke City of international football.