England, Belgium, Tunisia, Panama: it doesn’t make an acronym as alluring as the ‘England Algeria Slovenia Yanks’ headline The Sun ran at this stage in 2009, but English football fans will have breathed a sigh of relief after being placed in a group we might call BTEC – Belgium Tunisia England Canal folk (Panama) – because it certainly wasn’t the hardest option out there.
A cautious optimism must now seep into the England set-up. Encouraging draws against Germany and Brazil proved that this generation are more dour and pragmatic than the extravagant ensemble that preceded them. Even at managerial level, the contrast between unfashionable Gareth Southgate and his predecessors is stark: Southgate is a dullard from Crawley, whose most extensive managerial experience was three years at Middlesborough, whereas Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello were sexy European gentlemen, and even Roy Hodgson has language skills that would make a UN interpreter blush. Southgate is English bog-standardness at its finest; you can almost imagine him describing a 0-0 draw with Tunisia in Volgograd as a good result.
The biggest advantage of the draw is that England’s group has been placed alongside one of the weakest in the competition. Supposing England see of the Tunisians and Panamanians, but finish second to the elegant Belgians, they would face the winner of a group featuring Poland, Senegal, Colombia and Japan. There is no giant in that group, just four teams engaged in a Battle Royale face-off of mediocrity. The talented teams of the tournament are stuffed into the centre of the draw, like filling in a sandwich. On the outsides, the boring, beige bread is occupied by teams like Russia, Portugal, England and Poland, who all look increasingly like dark horses for the trophy.