England fail to hit the spot - again

For a while it looked promising. Then Beckham went off, Rooney was sent off, and finally, it was all down to penalties. Oh dear. Cole Moreton reports
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The Independent Online

So this is the way the World Cup ends for England. Not with a bang, not with a whimper, not even with David Beckham or Wayne Rooney on the pitch, but with penalties. Yet again.

The injured captain had already hobbled off when the hot-headed Rooney was sent off against Portugal yesterday, for stamping on an opponent's groin. The player who was supposed to be the star of England's World Cup campaign stomped off the pitch in anger and shame after being given the red card with half an hour to go.

Rooney's team-mates fought hard to keep the scores level through the rest of the game and extra time, but then came yet another defeat on penalties. The shoot-out at the end of a tense quarter-final in Gelsenkirchen yesterday brought back memories of losing to the same team in the same way two years ago - not to mention Argentina and Germany (twice).

Both Beckham and Rooney would have taken one, but they were not on the pitch. As his team-mates linked arms in the centre circle, the out-of-form Frank Lampard missed. So did Steven Gerrard. Jamie Carragher scored but was forced to retake his penalty. This time he too missed.

"We're paid to look," the television commentator John Motson told an estimated 30 million viewers. "Otherwise we'd be turning away too."

The Manchester United winger Cristiano Ronaldo scored to make it 3-1 on penalties. England were out, and Sven Goran Eriksson was out of a job.

His team had struggled to cope with a temperature of 32C and high humidity in a roofed stadium. They struggled to match the skills of Portugal - just as they had struggled to find the right formation during the tournament, struggled to get Rooney fit to play, and struggled to play as a team should with so many world-class players in it. But all that struggling came to nothing, as England were defeated in a major tournament for the third time running by a team managed by Luiz Felipe Scolari.

The Brazilian they call Big Phil turned down the chance to take over from Eriksson as the England coach earlier this year. He put England out of the last World Cup and Euro 2004 - so perhaps he declined the job out of a sense of what was coming: the sulky capitulation yesterday of a team widely seen as the most talented since the World Cup-winning days of ... oh you know very well when. Memories of 1966 have been almost as ubiquitous as flags of St George this summer. Now England has nothing but the past to sustain it once more.

Big Phil will take Portugal on to the semi-final. But the England players - and the wives and girlfriends who have been ceaselessly followed by the paparazzi in Germany - are coming home. They're coming home. Not to a welcome fit for heroes presumably but to a bit of a rest, a few mumbled excuses and then training before the start of a new season. Steven Gerrard has been playing football continuously for a year now, as Liverpool started their season early last summer.

Scots had been seen wearing Portugal shirts and cheering the victory yesterday; but England fans turned for consolation to the teenage Scottish tennis player Andy Murray. Union flags were waving as he was in the process of beating the number three seed, American Andy Roddick, in straight sets on Centre Court. But it should be admitted that those English fans expected him to fail, if not last night then at some point during the championships this week. After yesterday's football, once again, heroic failure is what they know best.

Before the game, Eriksson had insisted that this would not be his last in charge of the England team. "I am sure of that." But his critics had argued that a salary of £5m a year was a waste of money if the coach could not take England at least one step further than he had in previous tournaments, namely to the semi-finals. His contract ended when England lost, and Eriksson will now be succeeded by his assistant, Steve McLaren.

Also in the stadium were Victoria Beckham and her younger fashion rivals, such as Joe Cole's girlfriend Carly Zucker, whose presence during the tournament may have been more distracting than calming.

The England captain David Beckham and his Portugal counterpart Luis Figo had read statements prepared by Fifa before kick-off. "I declare that we reject racism and all other forms of discrimination on and off the field," said Beckham from the centre of the pitch, through feedback from the microphone. "We are committed to doing all we can and are appealing to you to join us in fighting this evil."

More than half the 53,084 people inside the AufSchalke Arena were England supporters, making it seem like a home game. Tens of thousands more watched at fan festivals and in bars around the city - one big screen was set up at a local stadium containing 30,000 people.

Eriksson chose to play Wayne Rooney as a lone striker, with a five-man midfield to stifle the creative Portuguese. Portugal had won their eight previous games (and Scolari his previous 11 World Cup ties). But they had lost two key players during the previous match against Holland, when Deco and Costinha were given red cards and suspended. The Manchester United winger Cristian Ronaldo was injured then, but passed a late fitness test yesterday.

The England coach had prepared for the match by defending his team and his record. "I don't think my reputation is on the line in this game more than any other," said Eriksson. "I have been in this game for 30 years now and I have won trophies in the past." And he insisted: "This match is not going to go wrong."

The England squad was the best he had ever managed, he said: "We have the quality to go all the way." His former player Gareth Southgate said the manager had failed to inspire when they last played Portugal: "We needed Winston Churchill but we got Iain Duncan Smith". But Eriksson insisted he would not change his style. "If I stand there screaming I don't think they will play better."

England struggled through the group stage with Rooney not yet fit and Michael Owen sent home after twisting his knee badly. They were running out of strikers. The answer could have been 17-year-old Theo Walcott, the Arsenal prodigy whose inclusion in the squad had been as sensational as a storyline from Roy of the Rovers. Eriksson had chosen him over the proven Spurs striker Jermaine Defoe. Not playing him was seen by some commentators as a tacit admission by the coach that he had made a big mistake in bringing Walcott. The player has filled in the time by recording a video diary, and he seems to have resigned himself to learning what he can from the experience instead of playing. "Hopefully I'll develop into a very good player one day," he said on Friday.

Beckham beat Ecuador with a free-kick of great precision, the only one he would manage in Germany. "We can't play like this and win the World Cup," admitted Steven Gerrard. "We need to raise our game or we could be on the plane home."

They will be today. Yesterday's television audience was the biggest for a sporting event since 1998. That was when Beckham was a floppy haired and petulant youth, sent off for kicking out at an Argentina player during that year's World Cup. The BBC had set up eight huge screens in towns and cities around the country. Fans watching outdoors had the right weather for it. Temperatures reached 30C in London, and a couple of degrees lower in the rest of the country.

Faye Treffy and her partner, Rui Azambujo from Portugal, watched the game in their garden in Bodmin, Cornwall - just after they got married. The 26-year-old English textile designer and 30-year-old Portuguese chef took their vows then took their seats to watch with 200 guests from both countries. The Portuguese guests got olives and cheeses, the English pasties and pies. "We're both football maniacs," said the new Mrs Azambujo. "There's no way we could get married and miss the match."

There was a rush to the shops yesterday morning, but by mid-afternoon the malls seemed empty. A spokesman for Footfall, which analyses shopping habits, said it could hardly be worse for retailers. "People are making a day - or even a weekend - of it."

Last night neither Gelsenkirchen nor most of England were in a mood to party. "We're not coming home," the fans had sung during the tournament. They are now.

Additional reporting by Kitty Donaldson

Next time our player misses a penalty - blame his parents

Psychologist Oliver James says that spot-kick phobia starts in childhood

Penalty shoot-outs are the psychological case par excellence of a situation designed to make a person malfunction. At least 128 studies of performance have shown that if you are motivated by rewards and praise - prize-hunting - you will do worse than if you are doing it for fun.

When engaged in intrinsically satisfying activity, people "flow" - become so deeply involved that they forget themselves. During such experiences they feel most themselves, a special freedom emanating from pursuing authentic interests and needs. The intrinsically motivated perform better than the prize-hunting.

To flow when taking a penalty during a shoot-out in front of millions is not easy. Yet this flow is what gives you the best chance. Its presence or absence explains why goalkeepers often surpass themselves, and why some penalty-takers are more likely to succeed than others - witness Matt Le Tissier's insouciantly high success rate and David Beckham's ultra-neurotic series of flops.

Goalkeepers are not expected to save the shot, so they are freer to concentrate on the problem in hand. They know that if they succeed they will be lavished with praise, but the issue of reward or condemnation is unlikely to play on their mind, leaving them free to focus on where the ball may go and, sometimes, on distracting the shooter - think of the relaxed, playful Bruce Grobbelaar's wobbly legs in the 1984 European Cup Final.

The penalty-taker, on the other hand, has only one chance and is expected to score. It is much harder for him to concentrate on actually doing what he intends, on making sure that he is all there. The outcome, with its criticism or praise, can easily overwhelm his thoughts.

If so, it may create leaden limbs and a dissociated, robotic, unreal frame of mind. Distracted from the mechanics of the delivery of the right kick, his mind loses track of what his foot is doing and an aberrationally poor strike is delivered - recall the loss of balance, in every sense, experienced by Beckham during Euro '04.

Alternatively, his acute awareness of the risks of failure can lead to a surge of adrenalin. His body takes over from his mind, a red mist descends and the ball disappears into the stand - think Chris Waddle.

Studies of stress show you need to be in just the right place between too much and too little, what people mean by "in the zone". Studies of motivational factors suggest that to achieve optimum performance we need to realise we are in a competition, but must not be made to feel too nervous.

As a viewer, you often subliminally sense which players are flowing and which are about to fluff. You pick up from their posture, facial expression and overall demeanour whether the external is impinging too heavily on their internal.

The amazing thing about these moments is that you are seeing this person's early childhood experience flood through their adult consciousness. To the extent that they were over-controlled and hijacked by parents, they are at risk of feeling overwhelmed by the need to meet high expectations. There are no studies of the subject, but I would bet my house that, once exceptional goalkeeping heroics are taken into account, for the ones who miss, their best was never good enough and parental love was conditional on success.

Oliver James is the author of 'They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life'. His book 'Affluenza' will be published in January

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