John Terry's press briefing yesterday was prefaced with such a stern and unequivocal explanation from a Football Association official as to what would not be discussed that it fell to the England captain to break the awkward moment of silence that followed with a joke. "I was going to come in with that tape [over my mouth] like in The Sun this morning," Terry said.
He was talking about the newspaper's back page which featured his face with the mouth sealed by two crossing strips of gaffer tape above the headline "Gagged" – a reference to the FA's ban on Terry discussing the allegations of racial abuse against him that are now the subject of a police investigation.
As a player who has always been conscious of the image presented of him in the media, that was never going to go unnoticed. Having come straight from his press conference with the television crews – for the most part a joust between reporters and the FA's head of media relations, Mark Whittle – he was aware that there was only one topic of interest. Terry has not yet been charged with any offence but the FA was adamant there was no question of him discussing the events of 23 October and Anton Ferdinand.
The issue is not simply the elephant in the room, it is the elephant from that famous episode of TV's Blue Peter disgracing itself all around the studio and impossible to ignore. Fabio Capello is picking a new experimental team to face Sweden tonight, one that, he said yesterday, would involve eight changes from the starting line-up of the team that beat Spain on Saturday. But even that has not been enough to deflect attention from Terry's situation.
Asked if he was comfortable with his decision to pick Terry in the squad, Capello was firm. "I think yes," he said. "I am comfortable, absolutely. You know what I decided. It's finished. You know why? Because, guys, innocent until ..." The sentence was finished for him and certainly Capello has a point. Nevertheless the team that runs out this evening in front of new Wembley's lowest-ever attendance for a senior England international will be an unusual mix of the old and the new.
The mood will undoubtedly be set by the reaction of the crowd to Terry. The FA has done its best to react quickly to events at Loftus Road more than three weeks ago but it has been stymied by a police investigation moving at a glacial pace. In an ideal world the FA would have decided by now whether Terry had a case to answer. Instead he faces the less balanced verdict of a crowd of around 50,000 people tonight who will bring their own prejudices and sympathies to bear.
For Capello the priority is to look at a group of players whose Premier League form demands his attention even if he is by no means sure that they are guaranteed picks for the Euro 2012 squad. While he promised eight changes from Saturday, the suggestion is that it could be as many as nine with a commitment on top of that to give Scott Carson the second half in place of Joe Hart.
There will be a first start for Kyle Walker at right-back after his debut against Spain. Other than Terry, the back four of Walker, Gary Cahill and Leighton Baines have 12 caps between them. In midfield, Capello would confirm only that he is giving a first start to Jack Rodwell, who also made his debut against Spain. He is expected to be joined by Gareth Barry and James Milner in a group of three.
Capello confirmed there will also be a start in attack for Bobby Zamora, a childhood friend of Terry, who has played for England just once before, against Hungary more than a year ago. Danny Welbeck, a substitute against Spain, is anticipated to start if he is fit, along with Stewart Downing, although Capello claimed to be still undecided.
If that is to be the team then it is an XI with 208 caps between them but 174 of those in the hands of just four individuals: Terry, Barry, Downing and Milner. Capello's message is that he has no time to spare to experiment with new players with only the friendly against Netherlands in the spring before he picks his Euro 2012 squad ahead of the last two warm-up games in May.
"We've got another game to play against Holland, but I need to choose the players when we will start the preparations for the Euros," he said. "I think these players have got time to improve in that period between now and May. After, I will choose. Probably, some players who are in a good moment now, will be so-so then. But the experience for these players to play in Wembley against Spain, Sweden and also against Holland will be important."
In picking Zamora, having left Peter Crouch and Andy Carroll out of the squad altogether, Capello is giving the Fulham striker every chance to impress him. It would be fair to say this is a pivotal moment in the career of Zamora. Capello and his general manager Franco Baldini rate the 30-year-old, but they will need to see something tonight to make them feel it is worth pursuing.
Where they have much less room for manoeuvre is in the potentially catastrophic situation with the goal-keepers if Joe Hart is injured. Carson has played just once for England since his nightmare against Croatia at Wembley in the Euro 2008 qualifier four years ago. If he looks uncertain tonight then there will have to be concerted efforts to talk Ben Foster out of his sabbatical from international football.
"I think the confidence with the players is improving after we beat Spain but the game against Sweden will be different," Capello said. "Against Sweden we need to play forward because they'll defend from midfield. Usually they are really compact and play the counter-attack really well. With two players like [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic and [Johan] Elmander, they're really dangerous on the counter. We'll need to be really good with the passes between the lines and passes through."
Capello finished by saying: "It will be a really different kind of game." He is not kidding. England might have beaten the world champions on Saturday but history tells us that the national team, with or without Terry, have a startling ability to extinguish a good mood almost as quickly as it arrives.
Sweden attract sparser crowd than Andorra
England will face Sweden tonight in front of the smallest Wembley crowd for a senior international since the new stadium was opened more than four years ago.
The Football Association expects a crowd of between 45,000 and 50,000 to watch a largely experimental team picked by Fabio Capello. That is even fewer than the previous lowest crowd of 57,897 who turned up to watch England beat Andorra 6-0 in a World Cup qualifier in June 2009, which coincided with a strike by Tube workers.
The FA has worked hard to sell tickets over the weekend. It sold a further 1,500 tickets on Saturday and 1,000 a day since then. Tickets will be available from the official FA website up to 12pm today and fans will be able to buy tickets on the gate tonight.
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