ENGLAND manager Roy Hodgson toasted the proudest moment of his career last night after a nervy but exhilarating 2-0 home victory over Poland cemented his team’s qualification for next year’s World Cup in Brazil.
Striker Wayne Rooney’s 41st-minute header eased jitters yet the three points needed to secure top spot in Group H remained on a knife-edge until captain Steven Gerrard’s goal two minutes from time.
Hodgson, 66, led Switzerland to the 1994 finals, ultimately reaching the last 16, but said repeating the task with the Three Lions surpassed anything in his four decades as a coach.
“I think so, it feels that way,” he said. “The real pressure as an Englishman with the English team – my other teams could not produce that. I am proud of my qualifying record, with only four defeats in 40 games.”
First place in the group means England avoid the pitfalls of a play-off and go straight into December’s draw, albeit not as top seeds. “You always have a chance,” Hodgson added. “If you want to win the lottery, buy a ticket. And we have a ticket.”
Poland came closest to an equaliser that would have condemned England to second place when goalkeeper Joe Hart spread himself enough to deny Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski on the hour.
Hodgson said he “died a thousand deaths” each time Poland advanced and joked that Gerrard’s late goal “took 10 years off” his age.
Rooney, whose goal was his 38th for England and his ninth in 10 internationals, captured the mood of optimism cultivated by perhaps the team’s most thrilling display in Hodgson’s 18-month tenure.
“We’ve had a great focus and belief about ourselves,” he said. “We’ve shown we’re a good team. We’re looking forward to a few friendlies on the way but we’re excited – it’s good times I think for England.”
England are expected to face Germany and one other opponent in non-competitive games next month as they count down to the finals, which start in Brazil on 12 June.
Gerrard said England had overcome “tremendous pressure”, adding: “That’s for the supporters. They can get themselves booked for Brazil now.”
Holders Spain joined England in securing their place in Brazil last night, in their case with a 2-0 victory over Georgia courtesy of goals from Manchester City’s Alvaro Negredo and Chelsea’s Juan Mata. Bosnia-Herzegovina reached the finals for the first time in the country’s short history with a 1-0 win in Lithuania, while Fabio Capello’s Russia were the other European team to qualify yesterday. They join Belgium, Italy, Germany, Holland and Switzerland in the pot for December’s draw. Doomed to a two-legged play-off next month are Portugal, Greece, Croatia – despite a 2-0 defeat to Scotland – Ukraine, France, Sweden, Romania and Iceland. Denmark were the unlucky team to miss out on a play-off despite finishing second. The play-off draw is 1pm on Monday.
Brazil qualify as hosts, while Argentina and Colombia had already qualified before last night. Two more places were available.
Iran, South Korea, Japan and Australia have all booked their places. Jordan face a play-off with the fifth-best South American team.
The United States and Costa Rica had secured places before last night. One more place was available, with a fourth team to play off against New Zealand, who came through Oceania.
Play-offs conclude next month to decide which of Burkina Faso/Algeria, Ivory Coast/Senegal, Ethiopia/Nigeria, Tunisia/Cameroon and Ghana/Egypt progress to the finals.