Eriksson fears for players' safety on rutted Durban pitch

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The Independent Football

Compared to the problems his South African counterpart, Jomo Sono, is experiencing Sven Goran Eriksson's difficulties with player availability appear minor. He can at least usually contact his players - 48 hours before tomorrow's friendly in the ABSA Stadium Sono was still trying to ascertain how many of his squad would be turning up and had not even managed to find Manchester United's Quinton Fortune.

Eriksson, though, did experience a new and unexpected factor in his attempts to bring Wayne Rooney to South Africa. He revealed last night that at the Heathrow meeting which determined Rooney was unfit to travel he faced not only David Moyes, the Everton manager, and John Clinkard, the physiotherapist, but also, most unusually, Paul Stretford, Rooney's agent.

The England manager was yesterday publicly keen to draw a line under the issue though not before allowing this admission to slip out. "There has been too much said about the Rooney issue. Everything was resolved on Sunday when Everton's physio and manager, and Rooney's agent, myself, our doctor [Leif Sward] and physio [Gary Lewin] agreed the best way for him to be fit for Slovakia is if he stays with Everton and has treatment and practice there. If he wants his agent there, why not?"

Of the players who did make it to this coastal port and resort only John Terry who has a thigh injury and is unavailable for the match, England's first on this continent in five years and first ever in sub-Saharan African.

By contrast Sono, who was only appointed at the weekend when Ephraim "Shakes" Mashaba was stood down for refusing to pick most European-based players, suffered three withdrawals. Already unable to secure the release of Ajax's Steven Pienaar he lost Spartak Moscow's Jacob Lekgetho, Bradley Carnell of VfB Stuttgart and Copenhagen's Sibusiso Zuma and is struggling to secure Udinese's Siyabonga Nomvete. Charlton's Shaun Bartlett will delay his arrival until today as his wife is due to give birth.

With their opponents in such disarray England can expect to win but, after training, Eriksson admitted his main priority was avoiding injury. The playing surface reflects the ABSA Stadium's main use as a rugby ground, home to Natal Sharks. The grass is long and the surface rutted. Eriksson and David Beckham were diplomatic when the issue was raised, but both agreed it was "not the best". Eriksson, who has requested the grass to be cut, added: "I don't like to lose even a friendly but I would prefer defeat to suffering an injury which rules someone out of the Slovakia game."

With that 11 June European Championship qualifier in mind the pitch is not the only danger. During England's only other match against South Africa, at Old Trafford in May 1997, Paul Gascoigne and Jamie Redknapp suffered bad injuries though dangerous tackles. "I hope it is a fair game," said Eriksson. "Tackles are part of football, but there should not be stupid ones in a friendly game."

Eriksson said he will start with his strongest XI then make changes, "but not as many as against Australia [when all 11 were substituted]." he said: "I need players to be as fit as possible for Slovakia and they have no games at the weekend."

Beckham, who will leave the squad after this match as he is suspended for that tie, repeated his concern about crowd problems affecting England's participation in Euro 2004. Uefa claimed players' goal celebrations were a contributory factor in the pitch invasions at Sunderland and he said: "We have to be careful now because it's been documented that players are partially responsible, which I don't totally agree with. You want to celebrate when you score but we need to do it on the pitch in the future, in the middle rather than on the edge."

Beckham may be approached to become an Olympic Bid ambassador for London though the fact the news broke before he was asked does not auger well for the campaign. The appointment, which he said would be "a great honour", underlines how far he has come from the gauche, tongue-tied youth who prefaced every comment with "you know". Yesterday he discussed South Africa's 2010 World Cup bid, which tomorrow's fixture launches, and today's meeting with Nelson Mandela. Of the latter he said: "It will be inspirational for us all and we are looking forward to it. To meet a great man like Nelson Mandela is an honour. He is a huge father figure for the new South Africa."