The last time Spain lost 1-0 before Saturday's defeat by England was against Switzerland in Durban in their opening game in last year's World Cup. Some thought that signalled an extraordinary convulsion in the distribution of world football power, which as it turned out could only have been rivalled by the declaration that several UFOs had landed on Table Mountain.
It is thus reassuring that England's splendid triumph is being seen largely for what it is: encouraging evidence that with the passing of that mythic golden generation, and the continued unreliability of some of the nation's biggest football names, an increasing emphasis is being placed on pure competitive character.
This, above all else, is what gave England, like Switzerland, the opportunity to prove that, with sound tactical understanding of all possibilities, there is a reasonable chance of containing and even, once in a while, beating the most gifted team in the world.
Even if Cesc Fabregas was profligate in those final minutes, if David Villa was a millimetre or two off his best touch and David Silva was for once more showy than consequential, England had plenty of reasons for deep-running satisfaction. When all the dubious confectionery was tossed aside, including the absurd poppy agitation and the ongoing crisis of John Terry's racism charges, this was a friendly match of uncommon significance for the morale of English football. The shortfall in natural ability and easy technique remained huge and there were moments when it seemed inevitable that Villa or Silva or Fabregas would announce a crushing separation of possibilities, but England suggested they knew what they were about.
Phil Jones may not have been the supreme example – not with Joleon Lescott, Phil Jagielka and Scott Parker offering master-classes in knowing who you are and what you can do – but it was little short of stunning to see the big 19-year-old grappling with the inventions of such as Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez.
He may not be the natural-born midfield titan Capello seems to have in mind but he has a boldness of spirit and sharpness of mind that seem bound to push him into the category of football most admired by a man like Capello (left). This is to say a young player of self-belief and a controlled but visible passion.
Capello's torment as England's head coach probably peaked in Cape Town when he confessed, after the execrable draw with Algeria, that when he looked out on the field he did not recognise his team. It was not so much an excuse as a confession; if a coach cannot identify with his product, if he cannot begin to explain the nature or the reasons for its failure, his options have become very limited indeed. This was what persuaded some of us that Capello would indeed walk away after England returned to the high veld to fold their tents. Instead, he insisted that he would stay and fight for his reputation.
It is the trait that Johan Cruyff, no less, conceded English football possesses in abundance: "Their skills may not be as developed as many of their European or South American rivals, but everyone has to respect their ability to fight, to compete. It is something they are born with."
Maybe it is a quality that Capello, when he looks at the performances of men like Jagielka and Jones, Lescott and Parker, has come to identify as his last chance. After beating the world champions-elect, Switzerland slid, exhausted, off the great stage. Naturally, Capello hopes that his new young heroes stand a little more firmly amid the tides. At least they have shown an inclination to fight – and live in the real world. Who can say this isn't a decent new start?Reuse content