It was England’s first World Cup for 12 years and the first they had qualified for through a group since 1962; but despite all the hype and a host of household names it ultimately ended in disappointment as Ron Greenwood’s side crashed out of the tournament without losing a game.
In truth, England were lucky to be at Spain ‘82 at all, having somehow stumbled their way through qualification courtesy of a 0–0 draw between Switzerland and Romania – a win for either side would have sent them through at the expense of England who hadn’t featured since reaching the quarter-finals at Mexico in 1970.
But as so often with England, there was plenty of optimism going into the World Cup thanks to a team which boasted such names as Peter Shilton, Paul Mariner, Ray Wilkins, Bryan Robson as well as Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking; both of whom had been included despite suffering from injury prior to the competition.
Victories over Czechoslovakia, Kuwait and France – with Bryan Robson scoring after just 27 seconds – guaranteed that England topped their group with maximum points meaning they and the thrilling Brazil side of Socrates, Zico and Falcão were the only two sides to progress with a 100% record.
Such was the make-up of the tournament in 1982 those who qualified from the first round would find themselves in another group stage – this time in brackets of three teams – with the side finishing top after a Round Robin format advancing to the quarter-finals; a format which was quickly dropped by FIFA for forthcoming World Cups and for good reason.
Strangely, the winners of the first groups received no advantage whatsoever in the next draw and England felt somewhat aggrieved to see runners-up France grouped with Austria and Northern Ireland, whom England had beaten 4–0 earlier that year.
Greenwood’s side, however, were drawn with hosts Spain and 1974 winners West Germany meaning that England found themselves in the “group of death” for this second series of group games.
First up was another encounter with the Germans in a game with England enjoying the early stages, but after their opponents hit the bar they seemed happy with the point; a result which meant that to go through to the semi-finals England needed to beat Spain by two goals on July 5.
The game took place on a hot humid night in Madrid and despite needing to score twice opportunities fell to both sides with Peter Shilton pulling off a number of decent saves to frustrate the wasteful Spanish attack.
Knowing the World Cup was on the line Greenwood introduced the injured pair of Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking in a last desperate attempt to turn the tie around and with 20 minutes remaining Keegan rose to meet the ball on the six yard line but failed to connect with any purpose and the ball fell agonisingly wide of the empty net.
Brooking also had a golden opportunity blocked as England threw the kitchen sink at their opponents but the game eventually finished 0–0 and after not losing a game, scoring six and only conceding one goal, they were heading home as they finished second behind West Germany, who faced France in the semi-final.
“After a rough qualification group England arrived in Spain with no real expectation of winning the tournament;” Gary Jordan, author of ‘Out of the Shadows - The Story of the 1982 England World Cup Team,’ tells The Sportsman. “However after winning all three of their opening group games they headed into the second phase with renewed optimism.
“Things could’ve been different if the injured Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking has been fit throughout as they only managed to play the last 25 minutes in the final game; but the 1982 World Cup put England back on the map after a decade in the wilderness, and better things were surely on the horizon.”
While history tends to favour the sides of 1970 and 1990, Ron Greenwood’s men had become the first and only England team to go unbeaten at a World Cup since winning the tournament in 1966, so spare a thought for the forgotten Three Lions team of 1982.