England vs Japan: Ben Stokes thought he had “just lost the World Cup”. That was the World T20 final against West Indies at Eden Gardens in April 2016, when Stokes had been hammered for four sixes by Carlos Brathwaite in the final over of the match. England suffered heartbreak. In 1987 also, Kolkata hadn’t been kind to Mike Gatting’s England in the Reliance World Cup final, luck-wise.
The Salt Lake Stadium is about a half-an-hour drive from Eden Gardens, where England will play their U-17 World Cup Round of 16 match against Japan on Tuesday. Football is a different sport, but superstitious minds could be wary of the Kolkata jinx and heartbreak remains a common factor in the Poms’ two biggest sporting passions.
If Stokes’ final over meltdown or Gatting’s impetuous reserve sweep had served as cricket heartbreaks, in football it has had been about penalty shootout chokes. The U-17 European Championship final loss to Spain in May this year was the latest. The Young Lions were leading 2-1 six minutes into the added-on time but they allowed Spain to equalise at the death and then went down 4-1 in the shootout. Aidan Barlow was the only England player to score from the spot.In the European Championship, the UEFA trialled the ‘ABBA’ format for the shootouts. It’s like the tie-break in tennis, where one team takes a penalty and thereafter each team takes two on the bounce. The FIFA U-17 World Cup, however, will stick to the conventional format but there’s no extra time at this level. Teams go straight into the penalties should the match end in a stalemate after 90 minutes.
On the face of it, England versus Japan is a mismatch. The European elites have topped Group F, scoring 11 goals in three matches. Japan, on the other hand, have finished as the Group E runners-up after drawing 1-1 with New Caledonia. “They (England) will perhaps win the Under-17 World Cup in India this month. That age group of 1999-2000-2001, there are a lot of top English players. For me, they are the best in the world in that age group,” Bundesliga club Borussia Monchengladbach sporting director Max Eberl said in a recent interview with The Times (London).
At the pre-match press conference today, Japan coach Yoshiro Moriyama put it more poignantly. “Many of the English players play in Germany, English Premier League, or training with top teams. Maybe, thinking of the market value of players they would be worth 20 million (pounds), while it would be one million for the Japanese players.”
But football doesn’t always follow a set pattern as Iran’s 4-0 hiding of Germany in the group stage of this tournament would attest. Japan can happily park the bus and take the game to the penalties. And the shootout is something where England teams across age groups, and all levels, are the most vulnerable. Since 1990, the Lions across all age groups have won only four out of 15 penalty shootouts. Here’s the sequence: The 1990 World Cup semifinal, 4-3 loss to Germany. The 1996 Euro quarterfinal, 6-5 defeat to Germany.
The shoot-out woe
The 1998 World Cup Round of 16 match, 4-3 loss to Argentina. The 2004 Euro quarterfinal, 6-5 loss to Portugal. The 2006 World Cup quarterfinal, 3-1 loss to Portugal.
The 2012 Euro quarterfinal, 4-2 loss to Italy. The 2007 U-21 Euro semifinal, 13-12 loss to Holland. The 2017 U-21 Euro semifinal, 4-3 loss to Germany. The 2003 U-17 Euro semifinal, 3-2 loss to Portugal. The 2004 U-17 third place playoff, 3-2 loss to Portugal. And the 2017 U-17 Euro final, 4-1 loss to Spain.
So there’s a possibility that the England colts might carry an excess baggage if things go into the penalties against Japan. England coach Steve Cooper, however, exuded confidence. “Listen, penalty shootouts is part of tournament football; very much part of international football. Whether we enjoy them or not, we cannot get away from them. I have talked about a lot of international experience and the development pathway of the players and the journey that they are on. Penalty shootouts is part of that journey.
“We have tried to change the mindset about thriving at penalty shootouts and being confident about them. If we happen to progress tomorrow and if it happens again in the tournament which is likely, I’m sure there will be penalty shootouts in all knockout stages, we will be ready and will be confident. It is about a team to experience something new and we don’t look at it as a threat,” Cooper said. Japan didn’t reveal their plans to neutralise England’s attacking threats. But maybe, from a neutral’s point of view, stretching the game to the penalties will be a more pragmatic approach. Shootouts usually get England out of their comfort zone.