Spain 82 provided the first World Cup England had qualified for since 1970. The Three Lions painful absence from the international stage had come to an end. Considering England went unbeaten in Spain, it should follow that England are now two-time winners of the Jules Rimet trophy. However, a preposterous second-round format and the absence of clinical attacking play when they needed it most were enough to undo an unexpectedly heroic campaign.
Having been knocked out of the 1980 European Championships after two defeats and a draw, England entered qualification for Spain tentatively. England lost three of their eight games including a shock away defeat to Norway. Owing to miraculous results elsewhere, England secured their passage to the finals with a crucial 1-0 victory in their last group game at home to Hungary. The man in charge was Ron Greenwood. Aged 61, Greenwood was rewarded the post in 1977 after an impressive 13 years at the helm of West Ham where he won the FA Cup in 1964 and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1965. Despite the tumultuous qualification, Greenwood was regarded as one of English Football’s best brains and had the respect of the senior players in the squad.
Poorly timed injuries ruled out Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking from the opening group stages. They were huge losses – Keegan was the first-choice captain and two-time European footballer of the year, whilst Brooking was the creative lynchpin of the national side. Despite temperamental injuries, Greenwood included them in the World Cup squad – even if there was the slightest chance that they could be fit for the latter stages, he was willing to take the gamble. Meanwhile, Greenwood looked to another attacker to step up to the plate. Bobby Robson, who would be given the captaincy after this World Cup, was one of Greenwood’s most prized assets – the dynamic Manchester United midfielder was the only man to have featured in every qualifying game for Spain 82.
With Michel Platini increasingly regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, second-favourites France were set to pose Greenwood’s men a considerable challenge in the opening group game. But any apprehensions melted away after just 27 seconds when Bryan Robson scored what was then the fastest goal in World Cup history – a rasping volley at the far post. England’s early elation was quelled by an emphatic reply from Soler after 24 minutes. But the future ‘Captain Marvel’ pounced once more scoring a header in the 67th minute. England secured a sensational victory seven minutes from time with a strike from prolific Ipswich Town forward Paul Mariner – his 11th goal in 22 appearances.
Next up came Czechoslovakia who had won the Olympic championships just two years prior. The Eastern Europeans were despatched with a 62nd minute Trevor Francis strike and a Josef Barmos own goal. Francis, the first million pound footballer, was lively the whole game and a dazzling substitute’s display from Glenn Hoddle provided even more grounds for optimism. The win also marked a record of successive victories that had stood since the turn of the 19th century. The
A match-up with lowly Kuwait would decide whether England would go through as group winners. Greenwood’s team won against the tournament debutants with a solitary strike from Francis to progress to the next stage with maximum points – a feat equalled only by Brazil.
Due to the increase from 24 to 32 teams for the first time, the second round format was a cumbersome one – the traditional quarter-final knockout games were replaced with another group phase. Each of the four groups consisted of three teams – only the group-topping teams would reach the semi-finals. The format was particularly unfriendly to England whose perfect record had been rewarded with World Cup giants West Germany and the formidable hosts, Spain. The hugely-hyped crunch match with the experienced Germans was watched by 75,000 fans in Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. England played the better and created more chances in a tight match but were happy to leave with a 0-0 draw after Karl-Heinz Rummenigge hit the bar with a 25-yard strike minutes from the final whistle.
With the West-Germans defeating the Spanish, England met Spain requiring a victory by at least two goals to qualify for the semi-finals. Considering Spain had conceded goals to Northern Ireland and Honduras in the initial group-stage, England were optimistic. The welcome presence of Brooking and Keegan added to expectations. However, Spain proved to be stubborn defensive foes, forcing Greenwood to throw on the half-fit attacking pair after 68 minutes. A series of late chances was capped by an unmarked Keegan who headed inches wide from a gaping net. The image of Keegan falling to his knees in utter despair remains etched on the memories of many England fans to this day. Keegan recently attributed the miss to a lack of match-fitness: ”I’d been injured with my back and hadn’t trained. It shows that if your preparation is not 100 percent, you can catch yourself out.’’ It was the last highlight of an intensely frustrating goalless draw. England had been knocked out of the tournament without losing a game. FIFA later acknowledged this blatant inadequacy and scrapped the second phase of group.
Ron Greenwood had brought his team a long way since the humiliating defeat to Norway. In less than a year he had re-established England as a genuine world power on the footballing stage. After 12 years of ignominious absence, England’s confident performances at Spain 82 restored the qualities of loyalty and dignity as well as success to the Three Lions badge. The day after England’s exit, The Times’ correspondent, Stuart Jones made the following apt assessment: ”There is no need for England to feel ashamed. Their efforts cannot be faulted and nor can their dedication. England’s weakness was their lack of one or two outstanding individuals that any side must contain to be confident of conquering the world.” The absence of Keegan and Brooking, a pair most certainly in the realms of the outstanding individual tag, may well have been the first nail in the coffin of England’s World Cup hopes in Spain. The senseless tournament format was most certainly the last. With two thirds of this squad failing to make it on the plane to the 1986 World Cup, the English national team lost a considerable amount of momentum that would not be built up again until Italia 90.