On England’s infamous “easy side of the draw” at the World Cup

By the time England’s 6–1 win over Panama at the World Cup in Russia came to its conclusion it was evident that the knockout rounds were likely to take an particular shape.

Then, when Germany were beaten by South Korea and eliminated, the bracket for the knockout stage became undeniably top-heavy.

England’s stiffs lost to Belgium’s and there we were, in the “easy side of the draw” with Colombia, Sweden or Switzerland, and one of Spain, Russia, Croatia or Denmark blocking England’s path to the final.

It’s become unfashionable to acknowledge that there’s a path to the final, what with errant accusations of national arrogance flying about the place, but that was the path.

And, while both Gareth Southgate and his Belgium opposite number Roberto Martinez sent out weaker sides in the final game of Group G, I reject wholly the idea that the England team that night preferred to lose. They eased up at the end. But they were beaten.

But “easy side of the draw” was a lazy label. Perhaps dividing the draw into the good half and the bad half might have been more accurate.

“Easy” suggests England were apart from those other teams, better than them. “Bad” — by comparison with the top end of the bracket — counts England in the bunch.

England’s place in that conversation matters. It became the “easy side of the draw” because the other half would have eaten England for breakfast. It wasn’t about ease or arrogance, but about possibility and optimism.

Southgate’s side negotiated consecutive hurdles that lesser England teams would have tripped over.

More experienced Englands might have lost to Colombia and probably wouldn’t have won the penalty shoot-out. That would have been that; it’s important not to overlook that likelihood.

Nevertheless, there’s a common opinion that England’s progress through the competition is discredited by lucking into the “easy side of the draw” and that reaching a World Cup semi-final for the first time since 1990 isn’t worth celebrating.

The so-called Golden Generation would have walked it, apparently. Bollocks.

England’s path to the semi-final was easier for England than, say, Argentina followed by Uruguay followed by Belgium.

But that doesn’t take the edge off England’s achievement this summer at all. Not one bit. This is tournament football. You play who you play, you face what you face, and you’re measured only by the progress you make and where it ends.

England reached the World Cup semi-final. It can’t be denied, disputed or disguised behind the baffling belief that it was easy. Since when has anything been easy for England?

As such, England supporters shouldn’t pay any mind to the views of outsiders about the way the draw opened up. And it did. It opened up for Croatia, too.

But the infamous parting of the draw does matter, not for assessing World Cup 2018 but in our internal understanding as a newly united England community.

There’s a balance to be struck around the “easy side of the draw” phenomenon. It shouldn’t affect history’s judgement of England’s performance in Russia but it does threaten to create a false basis for greater expectations in the future.

England is now a process. It’s both our buzzword and our methodology. We’re working towards success in years and generations to come and we know that reaching the last four in 2018 wasn’t a planned milestone.

But, well, the draw opened up. It allowed an England side currently inferior to several teams in the top half of the bracket to go further than them.

It was great. It was. But it’s now just an enjoyable summer in our history and a small marker of where England need to go.

They were better than before and better than expected. But they’re not a semi-final team yet and they shouldn’t be judged as such when the next tournament rolls around. The process is only just beginning to bear its fruit.

Chris Nee co-hosts an England podcast, The Stiles Council, which you can subscribe to now.