Yet in recent years, things have started to change. The Three Lions are now unbeaten in three matches against the five-time world champions, and last beat them in February 2013.
The game in question was a tight friendly affair at Wembley that has not lived long in the memory. But it was England’s first truly prestigious win of the Roy Hodgson era — and one the South Americans deserved to lose.
Hodgson’s somewhat erratic side came into the fixture ranked sixth in the world. Brazil were gearing up to host the World Cup the following year and were going through something of an evolutionary cycle. They were down in 18th place.
But a win against Brazil is impressive at any point in time. That was the England party line.
In what was England’s last ever match during a February international break, the home side lined up against an awkward assemblage of Brazilian players.
On the one hand, Luiz Felipe Scolari could count on the likes of Dani Alves, David Luiz, Ramires, Oscar and Neymar. On the other, England were coming up against little-known Arouca and Jean, as well as a rapidly fading Ronaldinho. It was all a little bit… well, weird.
And it soon got weirder. After Jack Wilshere was harshly adjudged to have handled in the area, Ronaldinho — by then plying his trade with Atletico Mineiro — stepped up with just under 20 mintues gone to strike a weak penalty into Joe Hart’s palms.
The ball came back out causing a magnificently chaotic goalmouth scramble. But the headline was that Ronaldinho had failed to score from the spot, 11 years after his deft lob had deceived David Seaman and helped Brazil past England and into the 2002 World Cup semi-finals.
— Wembley Stadium (@wembleystadium) April 19, 2017
Wilshere atoned just eight minutes later. His smooth running and assured passing seem an ancient memory now. Back then, though, the midfielder was only getting better season on season under the astute management of two men mesmerised by his talent: Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger and England’s Hodgson.
Wilshere fed Theo Walcott with a deliciously weighted throughball. Walcott was denied by a good save, only for Wayne Rooney to calmly guide home the rebound from a fair distance out. Wembley was packed with 87,000 fans. The cauldron bubbled over immediately.
It was a match which showed the difference between talent and quality. Neymar was 21, still at Santos, and raw talent personified. Rooney was England’s best player, and a sure-fire goalscorer almost every time he played for the Three Lions.
Rooney’s finish was excellent, and Neymar could have done with some of that composure as he blazed over from four yards following Oscar’s sumptuous cross.
Brazil would find their equaliser though. Gary Cahill ventured a little too far from defence with the ball between his feet, allowing the visitors to nick it off his toes. Fred lashed home emphatically, and England had shot themselves in the foot.
The same happened again just minutes later, this time Fred striking the post. England were living precariously and were in danger of undoing all of their earlier hard work.
Hodgson’s side hung on for a while, but then they regained their rhythm. Then through a familiar source, they edged back in front. Rooney nipped in to dispossess Arouca on the edge of his own area, his tackle turning into a good pass for Frank Lampard.
The Chelsea man approached the ball with a cultured side-foot volley. Into the net it went, off the post and past the stretching arm of Julio Cesar.
— England (@England) February 6, 2021
At times in his career, Lampard’s impeccable shooting left you wondering whether he might have been an effective No.9 in another life. Here, he and the true forward, Rooney, had both done the damage. England led 2–1.
Scolari’s Brazil kept knocking on Joe Hart’s door in the final stages of an entertaining encounter — samba football without the shooting boots. Each time, by hook or by crook, England had the answer. Hodgson’s team held on.
For the first time since 1990, the Three Lions were victorious over the world’s most successful footballing nation. This had been a decisive win, if not a meaningful one in a meaningful game.
However, there were other ways in which this win, in retrospect, becomes even more impressive.
Just five months later, Brazil would thrash Spain in the final of the Confederations Cup in a match that signalled the beginning of the end for that truly dominant Spanish side of 2008–2013.
Many believe that Spain team to be the best international football has seen. Fred, Neymar and Oscar dismantled them at the Maracana.
Then, the following year, Brazil made the semi-finals of the World Cup.
• • • •
• • • •
Yes, they were the hosts, and yes they got taught a harrowing football lesson in their 7–1 defeat to Germany. Those things are true. But they reached the final four.
How far did Roy Hodgson and England get? Let’s just say their return flight came days, not weeks, after their arrival.
History remembers Hodgson for just one match of his 56-game tenure. It involved long throws, the thunderclap, and has rightly gone down as the most disgraceful defeat in the history of the England national team.
Yet Hodgson also guided England through two unbeaten qualification campaigns, and oversaw victories against France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and here against the mighty Brazil. That’s not a side of the coin that lands face-up very often.
England were hopelessly amorphous in tournaments under Hodgson, winning only three of 11 matches. But there was a great deal more synergy between his players at other times, like there was at Wembley on 6 February 2013.
It was a good day at the office – a day worth remembering.
By Dom Smith