England lost on purpose at the World Cup on Thursday night, deliberately condemning itself a 1-0 defeat to Belgium in Kaliningrad and willfully falling to second place in Group G in the process.
Let’s be clear, the above sentence is an opinion, not a fact. It will never be admitted to, or proven correct beyond dispute. England head coach Gareth Southgate is not going to come out and confirm that it was part of the plan to ensure the result that provides a far easier potential path to World Cup glory, and neither are any of his players.
It is just a theory, but it is certainly not a unique one. If you want any confirmation of that, try putting any one of these searches into Twitter: “England throwing”, as in “throwing the game.” “England deliberately losing.” Or “England “not trying.” Or “England trying to lose.”
Just to be on the safe side, let’s say that England “might have” wanted things to transpire as they did, with its first defeat of this World Cup. The reason they “might have” wanted that is because second spot came with a neat little place on the easier side of the World Cup knockout bracket.
Both the Three Lions and Belgium had already booked a spot in the second round with victories in their opening two games, so there was no problem there, no danger of going out of the event.
But now England faces Colombia in the round of 16, in Moscow, and gets an extra day of rest. Winning against Belgium, or even finishing ahead of their opponent on countback in the case of a tie, would have meant a clash with Japan, on Monday, in Rostov-on-Don, far further from the squad’s training base near St. Petersburg.
Yet surely Japan would be an easier foe, no? Correct, except than any team worth its salt needs to expect to get past either the Japanese or the Colombians with little danger. Assuming that both Belgium and England get past their last 16 games, Belgium would now be in line to square off against Brazil (if it beats Mexico). England would potentially meet the winner of Sweden and Switzerland. Quite a difference.
Not trying all out to win is not a particularly noble exploit, but Belgium “might have” been thinking exactly the same thing. Both teams made a series of changes to their lineups. If the game had ended all square, the final tiebreaker would have been disciplinary record, as in, the team with the fewer yellow cards across the tournament would have topped the group.
Lo and behold, Belgium collected a couple of early yellows on Thursday, and, would you believe it, those went to players who are expected to play no further part in the tournament.
But one man “might have” not received the memo. Adnan Januzaj, the talented young Belgian winger, got the ball in the penalty area after 51 minutes, smashed one goalwards and saw it fly into the top corner of the England net. Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez, with most of his best players sitting on the bench, did not offer a hint of a smile.
Apart from Januzaj’s strike, every time either team had possession anywhere near the scoring zone, a peculiar thing happened. Players who normally hit the target with routine accuracy shot narrowly wide. Or, more often, found their effort parried by the legs or the body of a defender in their path.
You could be forgiven for thinking something strange “might have” been going on.
Until FIFA does something to discourage a team from taking its foot off the gas, or more pointedly, offers a more direct reward for winning a group, then this might not be the last time this “might have” happened.
While it might offend the sensibilities of some, such an approach is, to others, merely common sense, given that the ultimate goal of going to a World Cup is winning it. Procuring an easier path for yourself is a tactic, whether it is a popular one or not.
That’s what “might have” happened. Now we’ll see if it “might have” worked.