Forty years ago, Nottingham Forest won the football league championship. It was a season when Liverpool won the European Champions Cup, in those days a knockout competition in which only the champions from each country qualified to enter. Liverpool’s success on the bigger stage perhaps distracted attention from how a team that was not packed with star names could triumph in a competition played over forty-two games. The following season, Nottingham Forest won the European Champions Cup themselves, the season after, they won it again. Nottingham Forest were not the best footballing team in England, let alone in Europe, but they were imbued with a self-belief by their management team of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. Their triumphs depended as much on willpower as on football skill.
Many teams have shown similar qualities. The Republic of Ireland team under Jack Charlton that played in the World Cup finals of 1990 and 1994 had star players, it also had hard-working journeymen who played with their whole heart. The team achieved what they did because Jack Charlton was able to foster a strong bond and a self-belief, and because back home there was an entire nation willing them forward.
Football is a funny old game. The Icelandic part-timers who knocked England out of the 2016 European Championships, and who held Argentina to a 1-1 draw in this World Cup, testify to the old maxim that while a team may easily win on paper, football is played on grass. Attitude, belief, spirit, expectation, solidarity, the intangible variables at work in any football game are numerous.
England will win the World Cup if they can combine those random variables to their favour. Already, the results are falling their way, Germany, Argentina, Spain and Portugal have gone home. Among the former winners, France, Brazil and Uruguay remain, but Uruguay and France must play each other and Brazil must face a very talented Belgium team. Perhaps by the time England play their quarter-final match against Sweden, there will be no South American sides left in the competition. If England beat Sweden, there will be a huge momentum built up for a semi-final match against Russia or Croatia, a match they would begin knowing they were the better footballing side and that they were only ninety minutes from the World Cup final.
England will win the World Cup if they can be imbued with the belief with which Cloygh and Taylor imbued those Nottingham Forest players forty years ago. They can do it.