ENGLAND manager Roy Hodgson has told his young Lions they can light up the World Cup just like Pele did 46 years ago.
After three weeks of extensive preparation, the big moment has finally arrived for England.
Hodgson’s youthful-looking side will take on four-time world champions Italy in their opening World Cup match in Manaus tonight with a huge vote of confidence from their manager ringing in their ears.
Just three of the expected England starting XI have played at a World Cup before, but Hodgson sees that as a help, rather than a hindrance.
The England manager may have just been 11 at the time, but he remembers the way in which an unknown Brazilian teenager called Pele dazzled during his first World Cup in Sweden almost half a century ago.
Hodgson believes the opportunity is there for the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley to do the same in the birthplace of the most famous footballer of all time.
“I’m not afraid of giving youth a chance,’’ the England manager said. “We’ve only to think back to 1958 and Pele bursting on to the scene as a 17-year-old. He went on to dominate football and become one of the most, if not the most, famous footballers of all time.
“When he came to Sweden in 1958 he wasn’t even well-known in Brazil. A month later he’s a superstar and went on to be an even greater superstar.
“You’ve seen plenty of examples in the World Cup; (Diego) Maradona was very young when he first started playing for Argentina. Johan Cruyff was another one when he was dominating European football for Holland.
“And (Franz) Beckenbauer was a young man when England lost in 1970.’’
When England were knocked out of Euro 2012 by Italy, Hodgson’s team were on the back foot for the majority of the match.
Italy, thanks to the brilliant artistry of midfielder Andrea Pirlo, dominated possession and failed to test Gianluigi Buffon in the Italy goal.
But Hodgson thinks England will be able to dictate more of the play this time around and when his young Lions are in possession, he says they will not be tamed.
He said: “I’d like to think we’ll be keeping the ball with that positivity in mind so that when the opportunity comes to unleash some of the talent we’ve got, some of the players who are good at running with the ball, running behind defenders without the ball, we’ll unleash them and put the ball into those areas because we need to score goals. I don’t fear that it will be anything like the game that took place in Kiev (in Euro 2012).
“That was two years ago, it’s history. Then we were in very, very different circumstances to now.
“I’ve got every confidence in the team and really do believe we will play well.’’
Other than Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who sprained a medial knee ligament injury in Miami last week, Hodgson has a full squad to choose from.
Danny Welbeck is expected to be available after recovering from a groin “niggle’’, as Hodgson describes it.
Hodgson has settled on his back four while Jordan Henderson is expected to play alongside Steven Gerrard in midfield. The only conundrum for Hodgson is which two players should play alongside Wayne Rooney, who will line up just behind main striker Sturridge.
Welbeck, Sterling, Barkley, James Milner and Adam Lallana are all in contention.
The England manager admits he will find it difficult to inform those players he has left out.
“I think it has been one of my toughest team selections,’’ Hodgson said.
“There’s a lot of people really showing that they’ve got the form and the quality we’re looking for.
“When I actually name the XI there will be some disappointed people.’’
Hodgson has crossed the globe in his 39-year-long management career, but his crowning moment – so far –will be tonight.
“It’s fantastic, it’s obviously a highlight of my career,’’ the 66-year-old said.
Hodgson is sure his team are capable of getting out of the group and going far in the tournament but said: “What we want from back home is support, encouragement, for people to believe.
“If it doesn’t go that well for us, it’s not for any other reasons than it didn’t happen for us on the night.’’
Captain Steven Gerrard will move closer to becoming England’s most-capped outfield player of all time. He will win his 112th cap tonight, leaving him three short of David Beckham.
World Cup reports, pictures and results: Pages 2 and 3.