Football: Players must take the initiative

To fail once against moderate opposition is no disgrace but to stumble so often suggests an inherent flaw

THE BILLION-POUND project looked less than a gilt-edged investment in Warsaw on Wednesday night, when the superstars of English football, the representatives of a culture of corporate hospitality and celebrity weddings, the anointed heroes of a vertically integrated multimedia moneymaking enterprise that has virtually monopolised the nation's attention over the past decade, struggled to get the better of a team from a country whose capital city cannot even boast a decent modern stadium.

Good for Poland. They ran hard and fought well and, if they manage a draw in Stockholm on 9 October, they will deserve their place in the play- offs. No doubt their domestic game would benefit enormously from the sort of boost that the latter stages of an international tournament can bring - as England, whose football boom was launched with Gazza's tears in 1990 and went into orbit during Euro 96, can attest.

For the England team, who now have to endure a month of fretful speculation, there was a tiny measure of comfort in the news from Naples, Yerevan and Andorra, where Italy, France and Russia were also struggling against their supposed inferiors. In football, sometimes tradition and trophies and prosperity count for nothing. Occasionally, in fact, they can represent a snare and a delusion.

One Englishman was not deluding himself. Emerging from the dressing-room soon after enduring a severe disappointment, Kevin Keegan was impressively honest. "We can't say: `It's not our fault'," the England coach admitted. "I've had plenty of games in charge to get us qualified by right, without having to rely on someone else's results." He spoke briefly of the two penalty claims denied by the referee, but did not dwell on them. Keegan's whole career, after all, has been an expression of the need to take life into your own hands, to manufacture your destiny.

No one can accuse the English players of not trying hard enough to win the game against Poland on Wednesday. Nor can their coach be criticised for sending them out in the wrong frame of mind. But the failure to overcome modestly talented opposition perhaps has its root in the conviction - implanted by vast salaries and endless publicity, and so deep-rooted as to be impervious to the efforts of one man to change it - that success for England is somehow preordained.

In that respect, perhaps the easy fixture against Luxembourg last Saturday was not the best preparation but the worst. Rather than sharpening the players' appetites, it may have allowed them to settle back into a comfortable belief that the proper order of things had been re-established, and would now continue. Once again, we saw events foreshadowed in the experience of the Under-21 side, who beat Luxembourg 5-0 in style before losing 3- 0 to the Poles, after which they had their attitude questioned by their coach, Howard Wilkinson.

The relationship between the character of the group and the psychology of the individual is a complicated one, and in the case of the England squad, with its history and its expectations, we have seen for many years how the individual player's mind-set can be conditioned by the setting and how, even in a team game, the collective identity can become a barrier to achievement. The present generation of players, cradled and cossetted in an environment of attention and success, become convinced that they are part of a machine which will work perfectly if each of them simply does his job. Because, in their own world, they are superstars.

At international level, as Ronaldo learned in France last summer, superstardom has to be earned all over again. International football is about gifted players seizing the opportunity to express themselves, as Roberto Baggio did when he dragged Arrigo Sacchi's threadbare Italy to the 1994 World Cup final, or as Rivaldo did this week, with his hat-trick in Brazil's 4-2 victory over Argentina in Porto Alegre, three days after going down 2-0 to the same opponents in Buenos Aires. A powerful esprit de corps is all very well, but when things are tight you can get better value from an individual's inspiration.

And so, despite the penalty claims, the suspicion is aroused once more: maybe we really aren't good enough. Poland, after all, had beaten Bulgaria at home and away in their Group Five matches, a task which proved beyond England. To fail in one fixture against moderate opposition is no disgrace; to stumble as often as England have done suggests an inherent flaw.

In virtually all their matches during this qualifying campaign, England's lack of a midfield creator has been glaringly apparent. There is no one to change the pattern. The reliance on veterans in defence exaggerates the absence, since men like Tony Adams and Martin Keown no longer have the elasticity, physical or mental, to act as the springboard for attack. On Wednesday they had their hands full repelling the Poles, and there were times when it was impossible to suppress the thought that a Glenn Hoddle formation, with a Jonathon Woodgate providing younger legs at the heart of the defence, giving the wing-backs scope to stretch the Poles, would have proved more effective.

We knew, when he arrived in the job as Hoddle's successor on a wave of popular acclaim, that Keegan was no tactician. Fair enough. He has other virtues, just as precious. But as we saw in Bulgaria, and again on Wednesday, his mid-game decision-making can get muddled. In the light of that knowledge, the team's most urgent need is for an influential player capable of thinking unpredictably. If Howard Wilkinson wants to do something useful, he should set up an elite academy for playmakers: a scheme for identifying boys with the relevant skills and potential and taking them out of their professional clubs on something like a day-release basis in order to teach them the arts of Di Stefano and Haynes, Rivera and Gerson, Ardiles and Rivaldo. Take them to the mountain top and show them the prize. Does anyone have the vision for that task? Gerard Houllier is trying to do something similar with Jamie Redknapp, to teach him to think and pass more quickly, and we can only hope that Keegan will be the beneficiary of something that should have happened to this otherwise splendidly equipped player in his mid-teens.

What England emphatically do not need is players willing to diminish the team's capacity by getting themselves sent off. No longer is it a surprise to see a red card being waved at a white shirt. In the modern world, England were never going to maintain the pristine record they enjoyed until 1968, but the dismissal of David Batty, following that of Paul Scholes against Sweden, deserves some form of exemplary punishment beyond Uefa's statutory sanction. The foul on Radoslaw Michalski for which Batty was dismissed, like the one on Piotr Swierczewski that preceded it by a few seconds, was ugly and stupid, and Keegan should have the guts to say so and put a stop to it.

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