Fabio Capello yesterday lamented the injury "curse" that has afflicted the England team after captain Rio Ferdinand was dramatically ruled out of the World Cup finals with a knee injury sustained in the squad's first training session in South Africa.
Asked how he regarded the latest piece of misfortune after injuries to David Beckham and Gareth Barry, Capello said: "It's the curse of being the captain." He had to sack John Terry in February after the then-England captain was engulfed in the scandal of his alleged affair with former team-mate Wayne Bridge's ex-fiancée.
The latest misfortune to befall the England team took place towards the end of yesterday's training session at their Royal Bafokeng base in Phokeng when Ferdinand challenged Emile Heskey for the ball. As Heskey turned away, Ferdinand's left boot caught in the turf and, when his leg twisted, he sustained damage to his knee ligaments. He will need up to six weeks to recover.
The incident cast a shadow over England's preparations. The player was taken to the local Fernecrest hospital in Rustenburg for an MRI scan which revealed the true extent of the damage. Ferdinand had requested a second opinion which delayed the official Football Association announcement to 6.30pm local time that he was out the tournament but by then players and staff already feared the worse.
Capello admitted that his players had been left "upset" by the incident. Ferdinand cried out in pain as he went to ground and was taken to hospital by ambulance. He came out walking with the help of sticks and is expected to fly back to England today, with replacement Tottenham's Michael Dawson going in the opposite direction.
Ledley King will take Ferdinand's place in the England first XI, although there are obvious concerns about whether he can last a whole tournament. The Spurs man played a full role in training yesterday.
Capello said: "All the players who are here with me are important. But he is one of the starting players, the captain, a leader. But you have to go forward. It couldn't have been much worse on my first day. True. The other players were upset, absolutely upset. They stopped training."
Later when Capello was asked whether he thought the fates were conspiring against him he said that he thought no and joked that his strong Catholic faith would carry him through. "We have to pray," he said, "help us."
The FA and Capello were at pains to point out that the accident was nothing to do with the playing surface of the Royal Bafokeng pitches, which was a concern when the complex was being built. Last night Capello said: "It is obviously bad news and everyone with the squad is very disappointed and sorry for Rio. It was an accidental injury in training, but had nothing to do with the pitch."
The better news for England was that Barry played a full role in training for the first time since damaging his ankle ligaments on 5 May. Capello said: "I spoke with him [Barry] and he says he's really happy. There's no swelling and his confidence is rising. But we go slowly. This is the worst period. If you go too fast, it's really dangerous. I'd prefer he didn't play against the United States [next Saturday] and is fit for the other games."
Beckham also took part in training in his new role as a liaison between players and staff. He wore the same red training sweater and shorts as Capello and his staff rather than the black worn by the 23 members of the squad. Capello said: "He [Beckham] is the liaison between the staff and the players. It's very important that the players have him. He's not a coach, and he's not a player. We have to play against the United States and he knows better some of the players than we do."
For Dawson it was some turnaround after he was cut from the 30-man provisional squad on Tuesday. Like Trevor Sinclair at the 2002 World Cup, rushed out to replace the injured Danny Murphy, the Spurs defender was on the brink of leaving on his holiday when he was called up yesterday.
Dawson, still uncapped by England, said last night: "One minute I'm trying to arrange my holiday, then I get a call asking if I was on holiday because Rio had pulled out of training. I said 'No' and then I was just waiting by the phone before getting a call saying I would be picked up in an hour. It's been a crazy day.
"For Rio to get injured, there would be no worse feeling for him as a player. To miss the biggest tournament in the world as the captain, I feel for him. I missed the Carling Cup Final in 2008, and there was nothing anyone could have said to me that could have made me feel any better. For Rio, the feeling will be the same, but it's a chance for me now."
Case for the defence: Capello's options at centre-half
Age 29 Caps 60
With the captain gone extra pressure falls on the broad shoulders of the former captain. Terry may have led Chelsea to their first domestic double but his own form has been erratic in the wake of his much publicised personal problems that forced Capello to strip him of the captaincy in February. Four years ago he was named in the All Star squad after the finals in Germany, but has not cut such a commanding figure over recent months. Nevertheless, he is a certain starter – but who will Capello turn to to partner him in central defence?
Age 29 Caps 20
A fine season for Tottenham prompted Capello to pick him despite his knee problems. Looks certain to take over from Ferdinand, given the Italian is a long-time admirer – but is he able to play in back-to-back games? And if not, would Capello not prefer continuity of selection? He did play three games in nine days at the end of the Premier League season. Scored in the friendly with Mexico but looked uncharacteristically uncertain in his defensive duties.
Age 31 Caps 19
Has been an England player for seven years now but has never been considered a first choice. Endured a harrowing club season at the heart of a West Ham defence that was leakier than a BP oil well. Has been a regular squad pick under Capello – and stood in for Ferdinand when the Manchester United defender was sidelined during the qualifying campaign – but over the course of his 19 caps England have not conceded a goal in only three of them.
Age 32 Caps 36
Capello's decision to sweet-talk the Liverpool man out of international retirement appears ever more well-judged with each passing training session. His adaptability, durablity and experience of playing in a finals – he was a regular in 2006 – offers reassurance to the Italian. But does he still have the pace to cope at the highest level?
Age 26 Caps 0
Capello's native wariness of taking a gamble on an inexperienced player saw the Tottenham man initially left at home when the 30-man squad was trimmed to 23. He will arrive in South Africa today to rejoin the party in the wake of a fine domestic season, but the manager is unlikely to risk him – unless further injury strikes.