REVERED for his World Cup final-winning hat-trick exploits in 1966, it’s somewhat ironic that Sir Geoff Hurst stuck an unwitting boot into England’s hopes for next summer’s jamboree yesterday tea-time.
The Three Lions icon placed England in a Group D which stood for ‘danger’ along with Italy and Uruguay – Luis Suarez and Mario Balotelli et al – and Costa Rica. For good measure, it incorporates a visit to the jungle
It’s a difficult one to call as to whether Roy Hodgson or Manaus mayor Arthur Virgilio was the more unhappy following the much-hyped draw.
Despite his bonhomie and smiles for the cameras, Hodgson will have inwardly cringed at his worst fears of England’s World Cup opener being played in the city of Manaus – against the Italians, no less, on June 15 – being unfortunately realised.
It was location and not opposition that the England manager was primarly concerned about ahead of the draw for next summer’s final in Bahia with top of his things to avoid being an appointment in the Amazon.
In the event, he was handed problems both logistically and in terms of climate, just for good measure. Talk about the heat being on already.
If the draw for the group stages of the last World Cup, which pitted England in a supposed ‘Group of Life’ along with the USA, Slovenia and Algeria, was benevolent – well, we all thought it was – being thrown into Group D while not exactly a ‘Group of Death’, certainly had you questioning your own mortality.
An opening appointment with four-time World Cup winners Italy, who beat up England tactically and technically in the most one-sided 0-0 draw you could ever imagine in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals in Kiev was bad enough.
But to play them in the oppressive tropical heat and wretched humidity of Manaus represented a triple whammy.
While next summer’s competition may be during the Brazilian winter, conditions in Manaus are invariably stifling throughout the whole year.
Something that Hodgson, who planned to start out a travel agency upon retiring from football at the age of 40, will know only too well when England kick off a World Cup at an inhospitable venue for the second successive occasion.
But don’t expect the Italians to be too happy either, with coach Cesare Prandelli having called for water breaks to be introduced in the tournament after many of his side wilted in the heat at last summer’s Confederations Cup event in Brazil.
For the Highveld city of Rustenburg in South Africa in 2010 – and playing at altitude – read Manaus next June for England. But worse – and against tougher opponents, a side who finished third in last summer’s World Cup warm-up in Brazil.
Don’t expect the welcome mats to come out from the fair citizens of Manaus either, with Virgilio having stated he would prefer it for England not to come ahead of the draw – hoping they would ‘get a team and a coach who is more sensible and polite.’
Hodgson’s side can also expect plenty of noise from the locals in the early hours to give them a few sleepless nights.
A second game against another side strongly tipped to be in the shake-up for honours in Uruguay, a country which lifted the World Cup in Brazil in 1950 and who are currently ranked sixth in the world, is also far from accommodating either.
Especially when England haven’t beaten the tiny South American nation, ranked one place above Italy in the FIFA rankings, and who have punched above their World Cup weight during the tournament’s 83-year existence.
England finish off against the Costa Ricans, but the grave fear for the pessimists is that the clash with the Central Americans could represent the proverbial dead rubber – perhaps for both – on the back of losses to Italy and Uruguay and rarely can the Three Lions have been handed two more difficult opening two World Cup group assignments.
Unlike the Italy opener, the games against Uruguay and Costa Rica are at least kinder from a travel perspective, with the venues of Sao Paolo and Belo Horizonte relatively close to England’s training base in Rio, within a four or five-hour drive at any rate.
But it doesn’t provide too much consolation when the likes of France and Greece – who both had to negotiate recent play-offs to get to Brazil – were placed in groups that contained far less booby-traps.
It’s a toss-up as to whether the group of death is Group G – featuring Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the USA – or Group B, made up of World champions Spain, 2010 losing finalists Holland, Chile and Australia.
And what of Brazil? No host nation will enter a World Cup under as much pressure.
The fervent hopes of almost 200 million football-obsessed Brazilians will be firmly on the shoulders of the hosts, for whom World Cup success is seemingly a birthright.
Think New Zealand at rugby union and multiply it by 10 with the 1950 final loss to Uruguay in front of 200,000 people at the Maracana Stadium representing a black mark on the nation.
Drawn in Group A with Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon it shouldn’t represent too many pitfalls for the hosts, but a likely second-round meeting with either Spain or Holland, who will be far from undercooked following the most competitive of Group B’s, brings with it a serious smell of danger.
Brazil’s reviled neighbours Argentina, who won the last tournament in South America on home soil back in 1978, perhaps have the most to be pleased about following a draw that they could not have handpicked better if they had tried. Of all the top footballing nations, they were unquestionably the draw’s big winners.
The sight of La Albiceleste pitted against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria in Group F will have a bottle or two of Quilmes raised in the bars of Buenos Aires, with a second-round clash against possibly Switzerland or Ecuador also adding to the sense of well-being.