As Britain's Olympians rise to the occasion in Beijing so England's underachieving footballers look on with envy. Nineteen days from the beginning of another World Cup qualifying campaign and the problem, Joe Cole said yesterday is simple: England have not yet learned to deliver under pressure.
No gold medals for that analysis some might argue, but Cole's honesty makes a change at the start of another journey that England hope will end with the 2010 World Cup. Usually the question about England's perennial failure provokes shrugging and platitudes from even the biggest names; Cole, however, tried to give some insight into how failures such as the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign occur.
With England facing the Czech Republic tomorrow, their last friendly before they play the first South Africa 2010 qualifier against Andorra on 6 September, Cole said recent experience has demonstrated a failure to rise to the occasion. "In my opinion, you need to play under the pressure," he said. "Maybe some players do it better than others. That's just how it is. When England get over that psychological barrier there will still be games when we don't play well. But you need to feel that, even when things aren't going well, that you're going to win the game."
Painful experience has told us that when England do not play well, the wheels really do come off. What will not fill Fabio Capello with optimism was Cole's suggestion that even playing for Chelsea in a Champions League final against Manchester United was less daunting than playing for a jaded England team.
"Playing for Chelsea and playing for England are two completely different things," he said. "International football is different. If you're asking me how I think we can get better, it's about building the confidence and being able to play under pressure. It's a process. We might not go out there against the Czechs and win 6-0 and then everyone starts saying we can be world champions again. We've got to be realistic. We've got to build and build."
From Cole, 26, who has 50 caps for England and is by no means certain to start tomorrow, there was further analysis of the psyche of the English footballer. That old chestnut about why the unknowns living on Lottery stipends can triumph in the Olympics while our multi-millionaire footballers fail will be trotted out more than once this month. Cole politely pointed out that many of the Olympians are exposed to the pressure once every four years; for footballers it is twice a week.
He might also have said that the minority sports simply do not face the level of competition from all over the world that is a reality in football. Instead he said that footballers had not always helped themselves. "It is partly our own fault and our own PR," he said. "It is partly how we are perceived in the media. We could do a little bit more ourselves. It seems like when someone makes a mistake, it's like 'Oh, the footballers are out [of order] again.' It is tough and you have to remember young footballers get thrown into the spotlight at an age without much life experience. It can be tough."
Cole, up against Stewart Downing for a place on the left side of midfield tomorrow, made more starts for Chelsea last season (45) than any other player. Cole, who has two years on his existing contract, has pledged his career to the club: "I love the club, they want to sign me and there won't be any problems on that front. I will be a Chelsea player for the rest of my career."Reuse content