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Craig Salmon’s soapbox: Is it all a state of mind for our World Cup hopefuls?

England's 2018 World Cup squad
England's 2018 World Cup squad

Well, World Cup fever is finally upon us as host nation Russia get the 21st edition under way this afternoon against Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium, in Moscow.

I probably speak for all football fans when I describe the tingle of excitement in the pit of my stomach at the prospect of the feast of football which awaits us over the coming month.

The World Cup will always be the greatest show on Earth – and always provides an air of optimism for us England supporters that this tournament could finally be the one where we reignite our position as a major footballing superpower.

Despite giving the world 
the game – according to FIFA’s own website – and boasting arguably the greatest product in the Premier League, we as a nation have grown accustomed to being sadly lacking when it comes to competing for the sport’s greatest prize.

While the vintage of 1966 continues to be revered as the lone England team to buck the trend and actually win on the global stage, countries such as Brazil, Germany and Italy can celebrate multi successes.

I think the most damning indictment of England’s performances at World Cups down the years is that, barring 1966, they have never gone beyond the last four, while other fellow winners have been serial finalists as well as semi-finalists.

A solitary semi-final at the 1990 World Cup – when the Three Lions exited inevitably on penalties to West Germany – is somewhat nostalgically remembered as a tournament to savour for the nation. To be fair, on closer inspection, 
Bobby Robson’s men hardly set the world alight in Italia ’90.

The group games were a 
series of drab encounters while a last-minute David Platt 
winner saw England into the quarter-finals after a dour last-16 clash against Belgium.

Against the unheralded Cameroon, the Three Lions were on the cusp of an embarrassing exit until the African side’s indiscipline proved 
costly and Gary Lineker was able to rescue the situation with two penalties.

The fact that England saved their best performance until the last-four stage when they really deserved to beat eventual champions Germany has probably clouded people’s perception.

Typically four years later, we failed to qualify for USA ’94 and the perceived golden generation of Beckham, Scholes, Gerrard, Terry, Ferdinand and Lampard failed to live up to its billing in the early 2000s.

We reached a nadir four years ago, in terms of tournament play, when we failed to progress beyond the group stages in Brazil. Why England have failed so spectacularly at major tournaments has been debated long and hard.

Whether it’s our players playing too many games during a season, a lack of a winter break or the way we develop our youngsters, a whole host of reasons have been put forward.

Personally, I feel the national team has spiralled into a self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity, which coupled with the intense media scrutiny, has prevented our best players from reaching peak performance. We wait with baited breath to see whether Gareth Southgate can change his men’s mentality when they walk out for the opening game against Tunisia on Monday.