At long last, England's "Golden Generation" is dead.
It was the dream team that wasn't, but for over a decade, domestic superstars like David Beckham, Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Paul Scholes, the Neville boys, and Steven Gerrard had illustrious careers on their respective clubs even as they vastly underperformed for their nation.
But now everyone has either gotten too old, retired, or fucked Wayne Bridge's girlfriend, and aside for a few stragglers, England have turned over a new leaf. When Ashley Cole was looked over for young defender Luke Shaw to go to the World Cup, it was an acknowledgment that neither was likely to play, but that Shaw's experience was more important than one last subsidized vacation for the veteran.
And really, this was the right, easy decision. The Golden Generation accomplished not a damn thing. Now, legendary midfielder Steven Gerrard is the captain of England, young old man Wayne Rooney is still around, and Lampard should spend most of Brazil lounging in the sun, resting up for his Major League Soccer debut. England haven't looked better in years. Loaded with young talent, they went undefeated in UEFA's World Cup qualifiers, going 6-4-0 in their group to with a 31-4 goal differential to earn automatic qualification.
Brazil will be their 14th appearance, but England won its only World Cup in 1966, and have only gotten close one more time, in 1990. Though this team is younger and more exciting for reasons to be explained anon, England are expected to have the same problem they always have when traveling to South America for the World Cup: they're from a cold, wet rock in the middle of the sea, and Brazil is none of those things. (In fact, no European team has ever won a World Cup in South America.) Compounding the problem is that Italy and Uruguay are two of the best soccering nations in the world who always manage to be there near the end of the tournament, and Costa Rica in England's final group stage match will be a tough test, as well.
Still, England have reason to be hopeful. In any case, it's not like they can do much worse.
Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Fraser Forster (Celtic), Ben Foster (West Bromwich Albion)
Defenders: Gary Cahill, (Chelsea), Phil Jagielka (Everton), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Leighton Baines (Everton), Chris Smalling (Manchester United), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Luke Shaw (Southampton)
Midfielders: Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Frank Lampard (last club: Chelsea) Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal), Raheem Sterling (Liverpool), James Milner (Manchester City), Ross Barkley (Everton), Adam Lallana (Southampton)
Forwards: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), Danny Welbeck (Manchester United), Rickie Lambert (Liverpool)
Wayne Rooney, Forward
Before we go any further, we should acknowledge that Wayne Rooney is a demigod, one of the greatest players of our generation, and one of the greatest players in England's history, all without ever really accomplishing anything with the English national team. Forget his knack for great and important goals, forget his tenacity and heart and balls on offense and defense; I could watch this guy drop back in the midfield and ping passes 40 yards to teammates all day and all night.
He is a genius, and he's England's best player, and right now, he's playing as much for his legacy as anything else, so it would probably behoove him to have one hell of a World Cup.
Wayne Rooney's only 28, but he was a child prodigy who made his professional debut in the Premier League at 16, his England debut a year later, so he's also a part of England's Golden Generation. As such, his body has been battered a great many times, and it appears that finally, sadly, the English wizard is slowing down. He missed nine Premier League matches this year, and missed the end of the season with a groin strain that may be lingering.
Rooney's been to two World Cups already, though he's still looking for his first goal in the tournament. One reason England have doubters this year is because though they're bursting with talent and energy and athleticism, no one's quite sure where the goals will come from.
Daniel Sturridge and Welbeck are unproven goalscorers on the international stage, as is 32-year-old Rickie Lambert. Wayne Rooney is at his most hectic when he's connecting the midfield to the forward line, but for England to advance out of this tough group, they'll need their talisman to be fit, to create chances, and to score early and often.
Raheem Sterling, Attacking Midfielder
If Wayne Rooney is England's biggest star, then Liverpool midfielder Raheem Sterling is the brightest. The 19-year-old impressed everyone this season after years of promise, and at season's end, he was named by many (including our own Billy Haisley, who hates everything) as possibly the world's greatest teenager.
Sterling has turned into a frightening player with or without the ball. He broke into the team as a winger, but teammate Daniel Sturridge missed more than a month with injury, and Sterling was slotted into a more central role, where he proceeded to go absolutely nuts and help guide the Reds to an almost-Premier League title.
His pace more than anything else sets him apart, and along with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, England finally boast some of the quickest players in the world. He's already performed against some of the biggest, toughest clubs in England, and given the opportunity, Sterling should find a way to make an impact; he's simply too gifted not to.
But where will Roy Hodgson put him? He could slot Sterling on the right wing, but Sterling's most effective when playing behind strikers, either at the top of diamond in England's 4-1-2-1-2, or as the number 10 in a more conservative 4-5-1. But this is where England suffer an embarrassment in riches, in longtime savior-to-be Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, and Adam Lallana. Sterling probably needs to be on the pitch where he can affect the game, but it's still unclear if or how Hodgson will use his sudden superstar.
The thing about this English side is that no one knows what this team can do, and no one knows what this team will do. After the stagnant Golden Generation, England have reinvented themselves, and now, this team is dynamic. It's a trait they'll have to lean on heavily to get out of their group.
In Italy, Uruguay, and Costa Rica, England have three vastly different, but all very difficult challenges. A short time ago, their rigid side would've probably have been fucked from the start. But now, they have enough pieces to rise to each one.
Steven Gerrard, 33, has called the young talent on his team "scary," and cheerleading aside, it is. Ten of England's 23 players going to Brazil are under 25, and only six have competed in a World Cup before. But their talent, in their midfield especially, is undeniable. Jordan Henderson, Wilshere, Sterling, Barkley, and Oxlade-Chamberlain are five of the brightest young talents in the Premier League; Sterling and Barkley in particular broke out this year as stars for their respective clubs. And now, what England have in their youthful midfield along with Lallana and James Milner are players who are versatile as they are skilled, who can play in the center of the park or on either wing.
This is important, because in addition to their midfield, Daniel Sturridge has been showing off, too. The Liverpool forward finished second in the league in goals scored behind teammate Luis Suárez, and had an even better Premier League campaign than Wayne Rooney, England's best player. Sturridge has played himself into a role as an obvious starter, which works well if Three Lions are going to play their favored 4-4-2 formation. But.
England's first match against Italy in the steamy Amazon rainforest is going to be a fucking doozy, and in a group with three very strong teams and no-slouch Costa Rica, this game might decide England's World Cup fate. Italy's strength is their organization and their midfield dominance. Their World Cup roster will boast six Juventus players, including Andrea Pirlo in the middle, who absolutely runs shit, and who will absolutely rip a four-man England midfield to shreds as a deeper playmaker. But while Italy are many things (including better than England), they're very slow. In the Manaus heat, England might be better suited to play five midfielders to clog the pitch, including some combination of young, mobile stars like Sterling, Barkley, and (ailing) Ox to see if just maybe they can run the Italians off the pitch.
The question, then, is who sits? Wayne Rooney will retire a United and England legend, but he's not the athlete Sturridge is, and he has a tendency to drop back in the midfield in defense and to look for the ball. It might—might—be better for Roy Hodgson to give the younger Sturridge start, who's in great form himself, while moving Rooney to the left or off the field altogether.
That last option, is borderline heresy, and probably not going to happen. And anyway, as stacked as England are with their two forwards and many, many midfielders, their defense is really, really ordinary. Goalkeeper Joe Hart has raised more than one eyebrow over his career with his play, but when you look at Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill, and Glen Johnson, you...kind of shrug. This is a solid back four, and Baines and Johnson both give a lot going forward, but none of these guys are going to put any fear in the heart of, say, Uruguay's ridiculous strikeforce of Suárez and Edinson Cavani.
If they can get out of their treacherous group, England are a dark horse to make a deep run. Ultimately, though, it might be their defense, not their lack of experience or lack of legends, that determines their fate. This is the most exciting English team in a generation, and it might not be enough.
June 14, 6:00 p.m.: England vs. Italy at Arena Amazonia
June 19, 3:00 p.m.: Uruguay vs. England at Arena de Sao Paul
June 24, noon: Costa Rica vs. England at Estádio Mineirão
Top image by Sam Woolley; photos via Getty.