IT’S THE EUROS LAST EIGHT, BABY
“I have a vision that nobody else has. I’ve got bravery that no other coach has probably had. So, do you know what? Thank your lucky stars. I’m here. I’m here to stay. And I’m going to continue to keep improving. I’ve got a long way to go but I think with the set of players we’ve got and with my philosophy, I think we can go a long way. I live and breathe it, and I never have a bad day.” Bill Shankly? Brian Clough? Jock Stein? No, actually it’s, er, um … Philip Neville – two months after his England team, a side that should’ve been world champions, meekly subsided in the semi-finals, beset by strange instructions, odd formations, and inexplicable selections.
Seven months later, Big Phil was gone – though it was his appointment in the first place that should raise questions. His coaching career began in 2013 with England U-21 men – they lost all three games at the Euros – and continued at Manchester United, when he joined Steve Round and Jimmy Lumsden in David Moyes’s much-fabled brains trust. Sure enough, nine months after arriving, Moyes and his boys were ejected from Old Trafford, so a year or so later Neville moved to Valencia, serving under Nuno Espírito Santo and then his brother Gary, for the three months it took them to get sacked. This pedigree – 0 games as manager, 0 successes as coach and 0 experience of women’s football – earned him the England job, an appointment that might’ve been funny were it not to the detriment of a terrific group of players and reflective of the ludicrous privilege that infects football, sport and everything. But now look!
Once, England had brilliant players with an untried manager scraping by on talent; now they have a brilliant team with a talented manager bulldozing everyone with conviction. Before taking the job, Sarina Weigman had coached teams to the Dutch championship, the Eredivisie and the KNVB Cup; won the 2017 Euros with the Netherlands and been named Fifa’s best women’s coach; and reached the World Cup final. So when England came calling, she wasn’t even qualified for the job – she was over-qualified. Since then, her team have won 15 and drawn two of their 17 games, playing an exciting and coherent brand of football which has yielded a staggering 98 goals scored – an average of 6.53 a game! – and a barely-believable three conceded – an average of 0.176 a game! Their status as Euro 2022 favourites has been well-earned.
But now, things get different. Though Spain are missing Alexia Putellas and Jenni Hermoso, their individual skill and possession-heavy style represents a major test for England. But – unlike the men’s side – they are led, not by someone who happened to be around when no one serious wanted the job, but by the best person for it who understands how to blend and balance a team and won’t, at the first sign of pressure, forget that they no longer manage Middlesbrough, nor that their players are good enough to compete with anyone in an open game. Which is to say that whatever happens from here – England are good enough to go all the way, but so are Spain and various other potential opponents – we have, hopefully, seen an innovation that will last, that it’s still impossible to grasp is an innovation: the best jobs going to the best people. Now all we need to do is take the best game to all the people – the lack of diversity in both the England side and the English system remains a problem – and we can be as proud of our sport as Phil Neville is of himself.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“My research found that the ball was kicked 132 milliseconds earlier than the participants perceived, which doesn’t sound like much, but in a fast-paced game it could be long enough for the players to be in a different location and therefore could potentially change the outcomes of offside” – Dr Pooya Soltani, from the University of Bath, on her study to assess the accuracy of VAR and why it is still not precise enough to give accurate judgments every time.
“With Erik ten Hag thus far seeming to have inserted a spine into Manchester United, we fans can again sing ‘it’s just like watching Brazil’, but with the bonus of Brazil not being the dystopian Terry Gilliam movie that the last nine years have offered up. Hopefully …” – Mark Charters.
“Gonzalo Higuaín’s ill-received remarks that he thought he could play in MLS ‘with a cigarette in [his] mouth’ make a bit more sense now that I can see such behaviour is apparently acceptable in Serie A” – Harriet Osborn.
“Fans of saxophone-based jazz standards will surely be disappointed that Real Sociedad’s new signing wasn’t given the number five” – Noble Francis.
“Re: yesterday’s Fiver. I’m a season-ticket holder at Fulham. The game v Liverpool completely sold out within minutes of spare tickets going online. And I suspect it would have even if the tickets were £20 more expensive. Maybe even more. People are prepared to pay to see top-quality football (umm, Klopp-ball anyway). I wonder how many people would pay, say 25p, to read The Fiver tomorrow” – Alex Brown.
Send your letters to email@example.com. And you can always tweet The Fiver via @guardian_sport. Today’s winner of our prizeless letter o’ the day is … Harriet Osborn.
NEWS, BITS AND BOBS
Shay Asher, 24, has been banned from attending matches for three years after making a Nazi gesture towards Tottenham fans during their game at Newcastle last October.
Paulo Dybala has rocked up at Roma after leaving Juventus on a free. “The days that have led up to me signing this contract have been filled with so many emotions,” he cheered, then sighed, then laughed, then cried.
Nottingham Forest have got a wage structure and they’re not afraid to smash it to smithereens for Jesse Lingard.
Halifax Town striker Jamie Allen has decided to take his scoring ability to Love Island, which hasn’t gone down well with his National League employers. “[Jamie has made] his intentions clear that the opportunity is very important to him,” growled a club tweet. “The matter will be reviewed on his return.”
And Magnus Carlsen will have more time to devote to his fantasy football team after deciding not to defend his world chess title next year.
STILL WANT MORE?
Jonathan Liew sets the scene for England v Spain, while Sid Lowe catches up with La Roja’s Aitana Bonmatí.
There’s been a sea of orange in Sheffield and Leigh, the German fan bus in west London and even a dose of the Icelandic clap in Rotherham. Sophie Downey hears about the fan experiences of Euro 2022.
For his new book, How to Win the World Cup, Chris Evans spoke to the likes of Big Phil Scolari and Ottmar Hitzfeld about their experiences. Here’s an extract.
Which is the best-performing team from Big Cup’s qualifying rounds? The Knowledge knows.
And if it’s your thing … you can follow Big Website on Big Social FaceSpace. And INSTACHAT, TOO!