With one telling strike against Greece, David Beckham has had the effect of a locomotive engineer furiously stoking the fire-box of anticipation aboard the Orient Express. Contrasted to a year ago, when an ignominious shunt into the sidings appeared a likelier destination, the transformation of fortunes has been remarkable. Yet, much could befall its passengers before it reaches journey's end, if all goes according to the most optimistic plans, at Yokohama Stadium, near Tokyo on 30 June.
On the evidence of last Saturday's 2-2 draw against Greece at Old Trafford, Sven Goran Eriksson has much to occupy him in the next eight months if his squad are to entertain thoughts of attaining the latter stages of next summer's World Cup finals. Just as crucially, so do the team making preparations for them to perform to their optimum level in Korea and Japan. "It will be a test of everybody – and off the pitch, for sure," was the somewhat ominous declaration of the FA's executive director, David Davies, who is heading the team planning England's campaign, before adding his most uttered phrase: "This will be a World Cup like no other."
There is a chilling ambiguity about that statement. Yes, it will be played on virgin territory in world football tournament terms, with both hosts nations providing hugely enthusiastic audiences. But at an altogether different level is the recognition that no World Cup has been played out to such an uncertain political backdrop. In the present uncertainty, players' safety will be uppermost in his and his colleagues' minds in what will be a daunting logistical exercise. "Our top priority is security and safety. It has to be, in the new world situation. We won't skimp on that," he told me from the Uefa congress at Prague.
"The profile of some of our players is worldwide. We were preparing anyway, in a balanced way, for dealing with the huge enthusiasm that we're confident will greet our players. You've seen how Manchester United are received when they go there. Also, you have to look at the behaviour of supporters. Now on top of all that is the heightened tension around the world. And if you accept what the Government says, we're in for a long slog in this fight against terror.
"We have to take that situation extremely seriously. That's why we have the former Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police employed as a full-time security adviser. That's why we will meet and talk with our Government and the security services in Korea and Japan as well. We still want to try to find the right balance so that we don't get Fortress England. But in the current climate it's very difficult to achieve that."
Davies, who is being assisted in identifying base camps by highly experienced football men including Terry Venables' former aide de camp Ted Buxton, and the former Leyton Orient and Nottingham Forest manager Frank Clark, together with medical experts, has already made three visits to the Far East. Precise locations for England's training centres will not be possible to determine until the draw is made on 1 December.
But Davies explained: "We have identified a number of possibilities for bases, including Jeju Island in South Korea and the Japanese island of Awaji. They are two of our serious options. But it's not a question of having just one base and that's the end of it. These are two significantly sized countries and one needs to understand both of them. The weather is not identical. The costs in Japan of the simplest things are really very expensive. Travelling around is a major issue, with the added emphasis on security. This is a World Cup like no other in a number of ways, and one of them is cost. We have to look closely at that."
Davies' concern was vindicated by the revelation from AXA, Fifa's insurers, that they want to renegotiate the premium for providing cover for players at the finals in light of recent terrorist threats. In the absence of a new agreement, alternative insurers will have to be found, although Fifa president Sepp Blatter insists the tournament will go ahead.
From a playing perspective, one of the greatest problems for England will be acclimatisation, with the Premier League season finishing on 11 May and with a British club possibly involved in a Champions' League final on the 15th. The opening match, which will feature the champions France, is only 16 days later.
The FA's preparations will not include organising any friendlies in Korea or Japan before the end of the season, although they have not ruled out any during the build-up in May. Certainly, Eriksson and Co never considered the possibility of "inheriting" the game due to be played against South Korea by Germany next month. "Our view is that playing a friendly in November differs in a multitude of ways from playing a tournament match in the humidity of June. And, anyway, it's not our way to take players half-way round the world and back again in November," said Davies.
Hooliganism is an area that, however hard they try to blink and rub it away, remains an itch in the eye of the FA. Davies is hopeful the potential for trouble will be less than that present at a Europe-based tournament. "The police forces in the two countries are taking the issue very seriously and no one wants to see a repeat of Marseille or Charleroi," he said. "But it is a long way from home, and the cost will frighten some people off. Obviously, we are only encouraging fans to go who have tickets."
The FA are still confident that those who don't will be able to watch all the World Cup matches on TV, although there is still an impasse between the BBC and ITV and the Germany company Kirch, which holds the TV rights and is demanding a joint total of £170m from the two broadcasters, who are refusing to offer more than £55m. "There is a meeting likely in the near future between Kirch and BBC and ITV. If a point is reached at which it is thought by them [BBC and ITV], as much as anybody else, where it would be helpful for our intervention, we will be willing to do so."
As for the potential for success, the FA are ahead of the schedule plotted when Eriksson was appointed. "We've got a clear objective which is to win the World Cup by 2006. If we can do it earlier than that, it would be fantastic," said Davies. "In working to transform this organisation [the FA] success comes first." In truth, such an eventuality appears a long way off after last Saturday.
Eriksson will scarcely need to be reminded that, but for the captain's contributionand Dutch referee Dick Jol handing out free-kicks within his range like an Amsterdam hooker turning cheap tricks, the only point east he would have been embarking on would have been Ukraine. Castigation and ignominy would have attended his men, not an embarrassed sense of relief. On what will forever be known as England's St David's Day, the captain's performance was akin to placing a plaster over numerous gaping wounds. That it ultimately achieved the desired outcome, nobody should pretend that those lessons do not exist.
No Michael Owen, and there is a lack ofmobility. Even less a scoring threat, particularly if Teddy Sheringham's talents are not harnessed. In midfield and defence, there are personnel – notably Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and Rio Ferdinand – who, perhaps, have come too far too swiftly. Others, like Martin Keown, are too fallible at this level. That is why cautious observers foresee 2006 in Germany as England's true opportunity for glory.
Eriksson places great faith in continuity, but it is to be hoped that alternatives are explored in the friendlies, starting against Sweden on 10 November. Greater balance is required, and a greater distribution of talent. When a team has to rely quite so emphatically on one player (two when Owen is available) it does not bode well. England may well have qualified on Saturday, but in isolation the exhibition was as disconcerting as the eclipse of Germany was a cause for approval.
And yet, with Holland absent from the finals, Brazil arguably at their nadir, there could be reason for quiet confidence that England could yet have cause to rename their destination next summer the Land of the Rising Sson. A World Cup like no other? For England, it may yet be like 1966.Reuse content