On the eve of another two-year qualifying campaign for a major tournament, Steven Gerrard last night appealed to the English football nation to keep the faith that England could win the 2014 World Cup. "You never stop believing in football," said the England captain. "Miracles do happen."
Roy Hodgson's team face Moldova in Chisinau tonight in qualifying Group H, in the first step towards what they hope will be the tournament in Brazil in 21 months' time. A European nation has never won any of the seven World Cup finals held in north, central and South America but Gerrard said that should not deter England.
He said: "When I speak I'm realistic and honest. At the moment, we're not one of the favourites to win the World Cup. That doesn't mean you stop believing, working hard to improve and to try to learn from the mistakes you've made at previous tournaments. This team has every chance to improve and get better in the next few years, with players coming through and those players with experience. We have to have that faith and keep believing."
The team trained at the Zimbru Stadium, where earlier fears about the playing surface proved to have foundation. The ground, which holds just 10,500, has an uneven pitch with relatively long grass, although the local federation claimed it would cut it before the game. Hodgson has already lost three of the 24 players he selected for tonight's game and Tuesday's qualifier at home to Ukraine.
The last England manager to lose the first qualifying game of a campaign was Kevin Keegan against Germany in 2000, and he resigned immediately after the match. Hodgson said yesterday that he was not prepared to jettison the more senior players such as Gerrard and Frank Lampard simply because of a public mood for change, opening the possibility the pair may start together.
"Am I concerned [about age of senior players come 2014]? No," said Hodgson. "Otherwise I would be making the decision not to use anyone who is 30 when the World Cup comes along, and speculating on the young ones getting us to Brazil. The first thing we have to do is qualify. Many people think that's a simple task. We don't believe that.
"We have to play well to qualify. To do that, I need all the players at my disposal who can get us there. Then we'll see. There have been a lot of World Cups when people of 35, 36 have made a fantastic impact."
By way of example, Hodgson said that while in charge of Switzerland's 1994 World Cup qualification campaign he had picked the veteran Georges Bregy, who was 36 by the time the team went to the tournament in the United States and was regarded as a key player. The England manager did suggest that Pele had gone to a major championship in his thirties, although the Brazilian's last World Cup finals in 1970 was at the age of 29.
Gerrard, who will be 34 if he makes it to the 2014 World Cup, said that focus on the age of certain players was misplaced. "You should judge players on performances," said Gerrard. "It doesn't matter how old they are. The manager knows who deserves to be picked. You need to be playing well to stay in this team. I remember reading just before the Euros all the journalists who wanted Paul Scholes back in the set-up, and he was 37 at the time. That gives me a few more years!"
The Moldova coach, Ion Caras, said yesterday that his team would, in the modern vernacular, park the bus, and hope to frustrate England. The Moldovans have not scored a goal in their last four games.
"It's very important for the team to keep the goal locked," Caras said. "If the team will go without conceding for a long time it will be better. For every minute they pass without a goal, they get stronger and play better. The hope rises minute to minute."
The Moldova centre-back Igor Armas, who plays for Kuban Krasnodar in the Russian premier league, said that England tended to be a long-ball team.
"English national team is not like the Spanish who play tika-taka," Arnas said. "The English play long balls. They play good football in the air, it will be very important to win the battles in the air."