By Mike Collett
LONDON, June 6 (Reuters) - One of the most telling moments of England's World Cup build-up came off the pitch, away from the players, crowds and live TV cameras on the night of a laboured 1-0 win over Denmark at Wembley in March.
Denmark coach Morten Olsen, completing his post-match news conference turned back to the mass of reporters as he left the auditorium and shouted: "Good luck in the World Cup - you need it!"
As well as producing howls of spontaneous laughter, it crystallised in nine words what most people think about England's return to the land of their greatest soccer humiliation - it is doomed to failure.
Even the chairman of the Football Association Greg Dyke does not appear to think much of their chances.
At the draw for the finals in December, when England were grouped with four-times champions Italy, twice winners Uruguay and stubborn Central American middleweights Costa Rica, Dyke was caught on camera grimacing and making a throat-slitting gesture.
He later back-tracked, brushing it off as a joke, but there are, nonetheless, real fears about 1966 world champions England failing to make it out of the group stage, which has only happened twice before, in 1950 and 1958.
For once the hyperbole that normally surrounds England's chances ahead of major tournaments has been muted and it would surprise few if they left before the knockout stages start on June 28.
Manager Roy Hodgson, 66, has been careful to avoid talking up England's prospects too much. It is not that he has been getting his excuses in early - he has just been wary about raising unrealistic hopes.
On the one hand, he has a squad full of exciting young talents such as Liverpool's Raheem Sterling, Arsenal pair Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the injury-prone Jack Wilshere as well as promising Southampton duo Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw.
He can also call on seasoned veterans like captain Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney.
But, he warned: "We are in a tough group with two former world champions who are rated as highly as we are, so it's like having three seeds in the group.
"But it is an interesting group and I think we are helped by the realisation from everyone that is not an easy group.
"That, I think, is an advantage. People at home know their World Cup history, they know that European teams have never succeeded in South America. They know there are 32 highly motivated teams out there and that means there really are no easy games."
England went unbeaten through a tricky qualifying group including Ukraine and Poland, winning six matches and drawing four, scoring 31 goals and conceding four.
Over the last two years, Hodgson has given youngsters like Lallana, Shaw, Sterling and Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge a chance to prove themselves and they have not let him down.
While John Terry, England's best centre half on current form, is no longer part of Hodgson's plans following his retirement from international football, the England coach still has a solid core of older players who know what to expect.
They also know they must deliver in what will be the last finals tournament many of them will play in.
England skipper Gerrard has had a stunning season playing in a deeper midfield role during Liverpool's run to second place in the Premier League while Rooney has scored regularly despite the upheavals at Manchester United.
Rooney, as ever, will shoulder much of the responsibility for England's hopes and goes to Brazil having scored in their 2-2 draw with the World Cup hosts last June when the Maracana Stadium officially re-opened after being rebuilt.
Rooney, with 38 England goals, is closing in on Bobby Charlton's all-time record of 49, which has stood since 1970.
The former Everton player, however, failed to score in both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups after making a big impact in his first international tournament with four goals at Euro 2004.
Hodgson said in February he hoped Rooney, who is only 28, will break that record during the next two years, and more importantly, challenged him to "explode" at the World Cup.
"He is close to breaking Bobby's Manchester United scoring record and why not become England's top scorer too?" he said.
"But the World Cup is his big chance to show the world what he can do. Maybe once or twice in the past he hasn't exploded as maybe he has on our national stage, where we all accept him as being an outstanding player. This is his chance. This is the world stage."
His first chance will come in their Group D opener against Italy in the steamy Amazonian jungle city of Manaus on June 14. England play Uruguay in Sao Paulo on June 19 and return to Belo Horizonte, where they suffered their greatest humiliation, to play Costa Rica on June 24.
Some 64 years ago, England met rank outsiders the United States at the Independiente Stadium, this time being used as a World Cup training venue, and were beaten 1-0.
Alongside North Korea's win over Italy in 1966 and Senegal's 1-0 win over defending champions France in 2002, it remains one of the World Cup's greatest shocks.
Hodgson broke out laughing when asked whether that result would have any impact when England return there in June.
"I was two years old at the time - you can't pin that one on me - and I have more important things to worry about now," he said. (Reporting by Mike Collett; editing by Toby Davis)
- Sports & Recreation
- Roy Hodgson
- Wayne Rooney