England wakes up to a new national sport: the blame game

Flags are at half mast, replica shirts going cheap, and recriminations beginning
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The Independent Online

They have become the predictable rituals of defeat – predictable that is to English football fans. For the eighth time since 1966, those unfortunate enough by dint of birth or otherwise to be associated with Fabio Capello's tarnished "Golden Generation" were left to ruminate on what might have been and work out whom to blame.

The brutal puncturing of over-inflated national expectations by a superior opponent was relieved only by indignation at being cheated by flawed officialdom. But such feelings can only be fleeting. For it was quickly the turn of the manager, the players, and then the blazer-wearing grandees who run the national game to feel the righteous wrath of a vengeful public and a furious media.

The choreography of failure began even before the under-performing millionaire players boarded the luxuriously appointed team bus – bearing the cruelly ironic slogan "Playing with Pride and Glory" – for the journey back from the cosseted boredom of their state-of-the-art preparation facility in the South African veld. The Sun had set up a "Rant Line" for angry fans; the Daily Mail's Richard Littlejohn invoked the spirit of 1940. "Thank Heaven The Few didn't defend as badly as England's footballers in Bloemfontein yesterday afternoon, otherwise we'd all be speaking German," he wrote.

At Downing Street, over which an England flag had flown for the duration of the team's involvement in the tournament, the Cross of St George had been lowered by first light. Across the country, meanwhile, plastic flags which had adorned white vans, taxis and bedroom windows were on their way to the landfill.

The scale of the nation's disappointment was confirmed by overnight viewing figures which showed a peak television audience of 19.5m had tuned in to watch England lose to Germany 4-1 on the BBC. Early exit means a premature end to the consumer bonanza which surrounds a modern World Cup campaign in which everything from face paint to lager and cars – not to mention the players themselves – is relentlessly marketed. Only employers and working parents were able to breathe a small sigh of relief as the epidemic of absenteeism and early school closures drew to a close

Yet speaking at the post-tournament press conference, Capello appeared unfazed by suggestions he might be to blame for his team's showing. Shrugging as if puzzled, he said he had spoken to the Club England chairman, Sir Dave Richards, who would now have two weeks to decide the fate of the man whose services had so recently been secured with an enhanced £6m-a-year contract.

The deal makes it even harder for the national sport's cash-strapped governing body to relieve Capello and his entourage of their duties preparing the team for what promises to be a toxic homecoming friendly in August at Wembley Stadium.

Capello insisted he wanted to stay and said he had turned down offers from top clubs to lead England. He blamed what he saw as the punishing Premiership regime and called for a winter break so that future England teams would not be so "tired". "We spoke also about the players that can play for the next qualification and I know what I have to do," he said.

He also sought to lay the blame at the hands of Sunday's match officials – Jorge Larrionda and his assistant Mauricio Espinosa – who failed to spot that Frank Lampard's first-half shot had crossed the line. Around the time Capello was facing the media, the two Fifa officials were passing through Bloemfontein airport.

The England supporters, many of whom spent thousands of pounds to follow their team, were now leaving South Africa with praise ringing in their ears – in stark contrast to the team. Assistant Chief Constable Andy Holt, leading the UK police delegation, said he had feared there might be trouble. "I'm massively impressed by the way England fans have reacted to their disappointment," he said. "We've not had any trouble whatsoever. Given the manner of the defeat and the score, I was expecting it might be quite tense after the game."

To add to their humiliation, it emerged yesterday that staff at the England squad's complex had helped themselves to players' possessions, including their pants. Local police said the stolen souvenirs also included shirts and a medal.

You don't have to be German to be pleased ...

The Winners: by Tom Rowley

Bookmakers

Alongside estate agents and MPs, this is one of Britain's most hated professions, making millions of pounds from England's defeat. Not that it will bother them... Ladbrokes said about £25m of bets were placed on Sunday's match, with a spokesman adding that around 70/30 went for England as "the patriotic punt – people betting with their hearts over their heads".



Retailers

On Saturday afternoons, there are two places to find a significant minority of Britons: the pub or the shopping centre. So naturally retailers are thrilled that England will no longer be playing on Saturday, traditionally their busiest day of the week. Matt Chambers, brand director at House of Fraser, is delighted landlords will be pulling fewer pints while a few more of his tills will be ringing. "It would have been a big one on Saturday," he said. "So now we'll definitely see more people in store."



Goal-line technology manufacturers

After that Frank Lampard non-goal "goal", FIFA's aversion to using basic goal-line technology (as employed in tennis, cricket and rugby) once again faces fierce scrutiny in the papers and the nation's pubs. This can only help manufacturers such as Hawk Eye Innovations, above, – who already provide the products for tennis and cricket. It boosts their case that their technology should be used in future World Cups. Hawk Eye Operations Director Stephen Carter said: "We have a system that has been tested and passes all of FIFA's criteria. Often getting a call wrong in a big game can lead governing bodies to act. We found that with tennis, so we're hopeful that it will happen [with football]."

The All England Club

Demoted from televisions, despite staging the sport's longest-ever match, Wimbledon officials – and some spectators – will politely rejoice in the national football team's exit. The All England Club expects more people to queue to buy tickets on Saturday, when England would have been playing, while TV viewing figures will be boosted by the lack of competition, particularly if Andy Murray progresses in the championship this week. The BBC confirmed that Wimbledon TV viewing figures in 2006 were affected by England's better performance in that summer's World Cup.



Flag manufacturers

Fans switching their allegiance to new teams have been rushing to buy other countries' flags. Manufacturer Greens of Gloucestershire say there has already been a surge in demand for Ghanaian flags, right, with sales up 20 per cent since Sunday's match.



Sky

Will be glad that England's involvement in the whole affair – which it couldn't screen – is over. Sick of seeing the BBC rack up audiences of between 10 million and 19.5 million for live matches (the latter for the England v Germany clash). It can't wait until the resumption of the domestic football season.



Dearly beloved...

For thousands of couples, their big day will now take rightful precedence over the big match. Months ago England fan Tancred Lidbury, 27, and his bride-to-be Lucy Musgrave, 28, booked their wedding in a rural Northamptonshire church for this Saturday, not realising that England might be playing in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Lidbury said: "It was obviously my big day so I wasn't really bothered – well, I say that – but the match was going to be while we were still in the church and we didn't want people cheering in there. Our plan to appease people was to get the MC to announce the speeches and add: 'Oh, by the way, it's still 0-0'. I don't think Lucy was too keen on that."

Kath Stackley, who is also getting married this Saturday afternoon, says her husband-to-be is relieved not to be missing the action on the pitch.

"He said he'd never missed a single World Cup game and it was a statement of how much he loved me," she said. "So he's pretty relieved."

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