England can win World Cup, says David Bernstein (but first they must qualify)

On the fifth floor of the Windsor Atlantica, with Copacabana beach as the backdrop, the Football Association's chairman, David Bernstein, was looking ahead to the World Cup.

England, he said, should genuinely harbour aspirations of winning the damn thing. "I believe we qualify and we come back here to win it." He actually sounded like he meant it.

It seemed quite a statement bearing in mind England's only wins in competitive fixtures over the last season have come against Moldova and San Marino, and the only way they get back to Brazil is by doing something that has been beyond them so far and beating their main challengers in Group H.

On Friday, Roy Hodgson flies to Podgorica to watch the leaders, Montenegro, take on Ukraine. A win would move Montenegro five points clear of England in a group where only the winners qualify automatically. If Ukraine win they will be a point behind England, who they host in September, with the near-guarantee of six more to come from two games against San Marino.

Hodgson, in other words, could be forgiven for feeling a little apprehensive when he sits down at the City Stadium. "A draw would be the best result," said the England manager. " I would say, cautiously, I always prefer draws because that keeps everyone around you. Montenegro have had a good start and Ukraine are coming on strong and still have to play San Marino twice. That's more points for them so you have to be careful when you judge. At the moment, they are four points behind us."

Not to overlook the fact Poland will be only a point behind England if they win their own game in hand, in Moldova on Friday. "We saw from Borussia Dortmund the Poles have one or two good players," Hodgson continued. "So there is still a lot of football to be played in our group. It might not be quite as simple as one team will just keep winning its matches, it might be a few different results."

There are all sorts of different ways of looking at it but what is certain, coming away from their four-day site visit to Brazil, is that England are not really in a position right now to be talking about being the first European team ever to win the World Cup in South America. Hodgson, reflecting on the 2-2 draw with Brazil, offered a more realistic view. "It will be very difficult," he said. "The first thing is the heat. Even in winter months we are seeing 33 degrees. We don't play any games at 33 degrees heat and humidity in England.

"Secondly, the grass is different. There is nowhere near as much pace on the ball as you get in Europe. A lot of teams will find that difficult. Brazil are very clever, they hoist the ball and are full of these little chips and lifts. That doesn't feature in our game because our pitches don't lend themselves to it."

Thirdly, he might have added, England's competitive spirit will get them only so far unless they add a touch more refinement to their play. They cannot always rely on the opposition racking up as many missed chances as Brazil did on Sunday, and the brilliance attached to the goals from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wayne Rooney does not distort the shortcomings of a team that still have an alarming tendency to switch from good to bad and vice-versa. Beguiling one moment, bewildering the next.

So much depends on whether Rooney, with his poor tournament record since Euro 2004, can show the form he displayed in the Maracanã more consistently. "He had an exceptionally good game and if we're going to play with a lone centre-forward, I think he is in the position to do it," Hodgson said. "I mean, what about his work-rate, not to mention his technical ability, which was every bit as good as the Brazilians? I get the question so often about Rooney. I just see a good player. As far as I'm concerned he has never let me down. He has not always played as brilliantly as he did today, but he's a human being."

And yet it still might be that the more important player for England is actually Arsenal's Jack Wilshere. Hodgson was full of acclaim for the work-rate of his players – "we were running our bollocks off, to put it bluntly" – but he was entitled to criticise their carelessness on the ball, singling out Theo Walcott's poor distribution, and his assessment of the first half was hardly one for the football aesthete.

"Too many balls were going backwards and finding Joe Hart. Then Joe was trying to find people with his diagonals and kicking the ball out of play. Now that's not what we want. We want him, if he is going to be kicking, to do it more central and we will fight for the knockdowns rather than give them throw-ins."

England are, to use Hodgson's own description, still a "work in progress", and that leaves the team in a strange position whereby, almost out of a sense of duty, Bernstein talks about the possibility of winning the World Cup and remarks that "any player for England is world-class by definition" – and yet, in the next sentence, has to discuss the potential fallout of not even qualifying.

"It would clearly be bad news, a huge national disappointment," Bernstein, preparing to pass his role to Greg Dyke, said. "I would be as disappointed as anybody. What more can I say? We need to be there. English football needs a team at the major tournament, whether it's the Euros or even more so the World Cup."

Failing to do that has seen figures of up to £50m bandied around as the potential cost. "It's a nonsense," Adrian Bevington, the FA executive and managing director of Club England, said before flying back from Rio. "It actually costs us a lot of money to attend a tournament. Our contracts with our [sponsorship] partners are protected. The total at the end is your actual prize money, once you have taken the net out of it. So you're talking a few million quid in an organisation that churns out hundreds of millions."

But what price the prestige? Assessing England's results under the Hodgson era, the word Bernstein came up with was "OK". Perhaps realising that did not sound unduly flattering, he then talked about endorsing Hodgson to his successor. "He [Dyke] is clearly an experienced, strong-minded individual and he will make up his own mind up. But he will have picked up the vibes. I have met him and passed on that view."

Yet "OK" seemed about right – nothing more, nothing less. "You have to give us a little bit of time," Bernstein added. "Roy is still learning and we have suffered from a lot of injuries and players dropping out [for this trip]. As we get towards autumn I expect Roy to have a wider range of players to choose from and I am confident he will do well."

So confident, in fact, that Bernstein could imagine England doing better than Spain, Germany, Argentina and all the rest if they can get past Montenegro, Poland and Ukraine. "How else can an England team approach a major competition other than coming to win it?"

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Daniel Taylor in Rio de Janeiro, for The Guardian on Monday 3rd June 2013 23.00 Europe/London

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