England were yesterday drawn against Croatia in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers just four days after defeat to Slaven Bilic's team ended their Euro 2008 campaign.
Last night the Football Association insisted that an unglamorous qualifying group with a hellish travel schedule that includes three trips to the former Soviet Union – among them the home of Borat – would not deter managers from taking the England job.
The FA chief executive, Brian Barwick, put a brave face on it at the draw in Durban last night when he described Group Six as "an opportunity for the new coach to turn round our fortunes against a very good Croatia team".
There will certainly be a chance for the new coach to add to his air miles as England travel to Croatia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Barcelona – to play the minnows of Andorra. In all, England will have to fly around 15,050 miles in their attempt to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa.
It was the Croatia game that dominated the FA's thoughts yesterday after Bilic's side's home-and- away victories over England ultimately consigned Steve McClaren's 2008 European Championship qualifying campaign to failure. Last night, Bilic said that he had hoped to avoid England, who were the highest ranked country in the pot of second-seeded teams.
"When I saw the draw I said, 'Oh no, not England!'" Bilic said. "Everyone in Croatia was saying, 'Give us England again', but I wanted to avoid England. It is a very, very hard draw because they are by far the best team from the second pot. The only team I wanted to avoid was England. We are not afraid of them, but they have got a terrific team and brilliant players. They should gel and they are going to gel."
The Football Association will hope that Croatia's talented young coach will be poached by a European club side after Euro 2008 and they are not the only ones who will have wanted Croatia to avoid England after becoming the only team to beat them both home and away in a qualifier.
Barwick said yesterday that he had not yet made any approaches to potential new England managers or their agents but had spoken to Sir Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of football development, who, he said, would advise him on the appointment.
Just yards away from Barwick as he spoke in Durban was the Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, whose last-minute decision to turn down England led to McClaren's appointment 18 months ago. Last night they tactfully avoided each other.
Barwick said that finding the new England manager was "a hare and tortoise thing"– without specifying which he intended to be. He added: "We want to basically make sure we get the right person. We want to be patient if that's the right way to go about it. It's a big job ahead of us. We have a real genuine responsibility to deliver on it this time. You would like to think the quality of coach we try to employ will be fired up by any group."
Pushed on the issue of appointing a new manager, Barwick confirmed that he could wait until after Euro 2008 if necessary. "The reality is I'm in South Africa, then I get back and start concentrating on the other matter," he said. "I'm sure you won't let me get too far off the pace. I can't put a time frame on it, I shouldn't and I won't.
"As far as the group goes, when Croatia's name came out, I thought, 'Hey, we've got to get on with it'. It's an opportunity to pit our wits against a team which did us twice in European qualification. Firstly, there's a lot of travel, secondly the odd banana skin and thirdly a team that's beaten us twice in the last two games so, yes, we've got a job to do."
Apart from Croatia, the game that stands out is the 3,490 mile trip to Kazakhstan, ranked 110 in the world, and the home of the fictional comedy character Borat, whose creator, Sacha Baron Cohen, incurred the wrath of the Kazakh government for portraying their people as backward, racist and misogynist. In his movie, Borat liked to boast that his sister was "No 4 prostitute in Kazakhstan" and rejoiced when told his first wife had been "raped and killed by a bear".
As a spoof documentary maker, Borat's tactic of fooling unsuspecting, complacent victims is exactly the kind of humour that would lend itself to an impromptu performance at an England press conference. The FA will be nervous at the prospect of Cohen/Borat turning up during the build-up to the game, although it is an awkward truth that Borat is the single entity most English people think about when asked to describe what they know about Kazakhstan.
The trip to Kazakhstan will take more than nine hours with a stop-off – the country shares a border with China. The journeys to Ukraine, ranked 29th in the world and Belarus, 60th, will be in excess of four hours. But England will be pleased to have avoided Italy, who are in the Republic of Ireland's group and Germany, who face Wales.
European qualification for the World Cup involves 53 teams split into eight groups of six and one of five. The top sides qualify automatically while the eight best second-placed teams play off against one another for the remaining four qualifying places.
England lost twice to Croatia in Euro 2008 qualifying and beat Andorra twice in that same group. They last played Ukraine in August 2004 at St James' Park and won 3-0. An England B team lost 2-1 to Belarus in the build-up to the last World Cup and England have never played Kazakhstan.
The Belarusian captain is Arsenal's Alexander Hleb, one of the Premier League's most impressive performers this season, and their German manager, Bernd Stange, promised "a very good, young team keen to get results". Ukraine have the Chelsea striker Andrei Shevchenko.
Barwick said that he was still considering whether England would take up an offer from Scotland, drawn with the Netherlands, of a game in May. Northern Ireland are in a group with the Czech Republic and Poland.
The impossible job? Names in the frame to guide England to the World Cup finals
The chief executive of the Football Association, Brian Barwick, and the Association's director of football development, Sir Trevor Brooking, are to lead the search for the next England coach. Here are some of the theories and rumours they may wish to examine as they make their shortlist:
"Whoever is chosen must be mentally strong and have a vision. The next manager will have one advantage compared to the others. He will have time." - Arsène Wenger, Arsenal manager
"If the FA want a foreign coach, then it needs to be someone who has done well at the highest level. The man who fits that description is [Fabio] Capello." - Glenn Hoddle
"In a perfect world, an Englishman would be best. Next best would be a British manager. The only home manager who gets close is O'Neill. If he really does mean 'no', Mourinho and Capello have the personality and judgement." - Sir Bobby Robson
"It surprised me to be mentioned." - Bernd Schuster, Real Madrid coach
* Also mentioned in dispatches: Gérard Houllier, now technical director of the French Federation, and the choice of the former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein. Jose Mourinho and the former Germany head coach Jürgen Klinsmann are both under consideration by the FA.Reuse content