Alan Hubbard

Who will win this weird, occasionally wonderful, and still wide-open football World Cup?

Could it be England? Though still unlikely, it is not impossible and already there is dancing in the streets after Gareth Southgate's young and relatively inexperienced team reached the quarter finals for the first time in 12 years and finally overcame the penalty shoot-out-out jinx against Colombia on Tuesday (July 3) night.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves, as much of the media and millions of England fans seem to be doing.

True, anything can happen in Russia and much has already done so with several of the heavyweights of world football already embarrassingly ko'd, leaving the eventual outcome a virtual guessing game.

England must beat Sweden, not the simplest of tasks, to reach the semis. The Three Lions' record against the Swedes in matches either at World Cups, European Championship finals or in qualifying campaigns shows just one win, two defeats and five draws.

And how can we forget the infamous Swedes 2, Turnips 1 headline in The Sun after the 1992 Euros?

My hunch is that they might need that new-found penalty prowess again on Saturday (July 7) and should they win, what an irony it would be if they found themselves pitted against a rejuvenated Russia in what, in the circumstances, would be the ultimate game of political football.

That is the sort of bizarre scenario Rasputin might have manipulated, let alone Vladimir Putin.

There cannot be that many of us still around who were actually at Wembley on that joyous July evening in 1966 when England last won the World Cup, Bobby Moore wiping his hands on his red England shirt before accepting the old Jules Rimet Trophy from the Queen. Even fewer, I suspect, among those of us who reported it.

My memories remain distinct as you would imagine, but curiously, although I have either covered or watched all nine World Cups since then, it is not until this moment that I have sensed there might be more than faint echoes of 1966 and all that in Gareth Southgate's academy of 2018. 

Hopes are rising in England after their footballers reached the World Cup quarter finals  ©Getty Images
Hopes are rising in England after their footballers reached the World Cup quarter finals ©Getty Images

What manager Southgate, unlike so many of his predecessors, has done is instill a genuine sense of pride and camaraderie in bringing together a young team who play as a nation, as well as for each other and their manager. One for all, all for one - and all that. And it appears to be working.

There are certain similarities in the nature and instincts of both Southgate and the iconic character who took England to such glory all those years ago, the late Sir Alf Ramsey.

Both were in their mid-forties when taking charge of their first World Cup. Like Ramsey, Southgate is quintessentially a patriotic Englishman and has the same quiet assertiveness as Sir Alf without being quite as infuriatingly dogmatic.

"We will win this World Cup," Ramsey stated right from the off. Southgate, wisely perhaps, has refrained from the same unbridled commitment while being quietly confident that England would do better than in the last two attempts with sorry sorties into South Africa and Brazil.

However, one can imagine him saying to his deflated team at full time against Colombia, just as Ramsey did when West Germany equalised to force extra time in the 1966 final: "You've won it once, now go out and win it again".

Southgate can be both tough and affable. Ramsey was certainly tough but affability was not his strongest suit.

He did not tolerate fools easily, especially if they wore an Football Association (FA) blazer. He once memorably ordered the then FA chairman from the room where the players were relaxing because he was smoking a cigar. 

"Don't come in here polluting the air in here with that thing," he is said to have rebuked him.

Unlike the present England set-up there were no black players in Ramsey's squad. Not that he was racist. Far from it. It was simply that at the time none were good enough.

Had there been any he would have picked them - providing they had an English heritage.

For Sir Alf was the archetypal xenophobe. He distrusted all foreigners, particularly if they were Scots - or Argentinians (whom he notoriously dubbed "animals" after their Colombian-like roughhouse tactics in the Wembley quarter-final).

And we still treasure memories of Sir H'Alf, as the elocution-trained Cockney was dubbed, arriving with his team at Glasgow Central railway station for a match against Scotland and being greeted by the Lord Provost.

"Welcome to Scotland," said the dignitary, proffering his hand.

"Welcome?" sniffed Sir Alf, glancing up at the grey, leaden Glaswegian skies. "You must be bleedin’ joking!"

Alf Ramsey guided England to the 1966 World Cup title ©Getty Images
Alf Ramsey guided England to the 1966 World Cup title ©Getty Images

It is also recalled that Sir Alf was a full-back member of the England team which went down to an inglorious 1-0 defeat to the United States at Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in the 1952 World Cup.

"Weren't you playing in that match Alf?" he was once asked in casual conversation. "Yes," he replied tersely. "And I was the only one wot bleedin' was."

So far Russia have not put a foot wrong in organising and orchestrating this most fascinating of World Cups, and there have been several perceptive pieces in the public prints illustrating the openness, friendliness and welcoming nature of both the country and its people.

A remarkable and shrewdly-calculated PR coup for Putin.

Neither have England put a foot wrong on the field if you accept that finishing second to Belgium in the qualifying group was a smart tactical move to enter the allegedly easier half of the draw.

But there is much water to pass under the bridges of the Moscow River yet. An improving Brazil, Croatia (my outside pick) France, Uruguay, Russia and Belgium are still obstacles to ending that so-called 52 years of hurt should England defeat Sweden on Saturday.

So let's wait and see, a philosophy which Southgate embodies and one which echoes that of the great Sir Alf. Once the partying was done and all were saying their goodbyes after the 1966 triumph, hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst bade a cheery farewell to Ramsey. "See you next time, Alf," he shouted.

"If selected, Geoffrey," murmured Ramsey. "If selected."