The Netherlands are third in the world, England are seventh. No, that's not a misprint. They are seventh, not 77th, and this in the end seemed, mercifully, somewhat less of a distortion of reality after a start of grotesque incompetence.
By the finish there were at least glimpses of evidence that England had indeed been whipped into some kind of shape by one of the great football men, a disciplinarian of the old school who believes that when you are a professional it is not a vocation you dip into from time to time.
It is something that, for a relatively brief period, you have to make your way of life, your way of expression.
All the way to last night's game England's players could not be suppressed in their desire to say how much they appreciated, and had absorbed, this philosophy of Fabio Capello.
That, soon enough, was the most disturbing aspect of England's catastrophic failure to live to anything remotely approaching such a principle when they allowed the Dutch to stroll into a two-goal lead in the first half.
Rio Ferdinand, perhaps the most eloquent advocate of the Capello way, and Gareth Barry, one of the newer members of English football's plutocracy, made mistakes so nonchalant it was difficult to understand quite what had filled their heads before coming out on to the field. It was not, we could be sure, the driving philosophy of their coach, which is based almost entirely on the belief that professional respect is something that has to come afresh with each new performance.
Ferdinand and Barry committed almost identical crimes, passing the ball to the feet of opponents in positions which gave their colleagues, most notably the traumatised goalkeeper Rob Green, little serious chance of preventing goals. Capello, naturally, was not so much surprised as aghast.
In past regimes we might have expected a wholesale disintegration of faith, pretty much of the dimension that came in Copenhagen on the approach to the World Cup of 2006. Then England defended quite as haplessly but for rather longer and the 4-1 defeat cast a huge shadow over the prospects of Sven Goran Eriksson's England.
Capello's England though have a different kind of imperative, a rather strong force. Capello has the capacity to find pockets of resistance to the most unpromising fate, and last night his famed half-time conversations, which can as sweet, apparently as a master diplomat's or a ferocious as a demented sergeant major's, had perhaps their most dramatic effect since he arrived here 18 months ago.
The England coach effectively re-made his team at half-time, leaving Ferdinand, whose concentration has been known to slip before but remains a player of often quite imperious quality on the field, but yanking off Barry, a man who not for the first time had given some worrying hints that he might well have been promoted, both in club and international football, somewhat above his station.
Most significantly, he brought on Jermain Defoe, who scored two goals with brilliant opportunism. They were his ninth and 10th goals for England, and here we have, surely, a gathering body of evidence that he may well travel the full course to next summer's World Cup finals in South Africa. New force was also provided by Carlton Cole, James Milner and Michael Carrick, a player who surely offers potentially more much to the creative instincts of the side than Barry.
It wasn't so much the change of personnel as spirit and concentration of effort that marked this latest development of Capello's England. For much of the game the Netherlands passed more cohesively and seemed to have more men in greater areas of empty space, but slowly the force of England's effort neutralised any advantage that came with the Netherlands goals.
England still may have been a little flattered by their high Fifa ranking, but then their perfect record in World Cup qualifying and their ability to win in a place like Berlin has done much to wipe away fears that Capello simply had too much to do to draw from this generation of players a significant place in the World Cup.
For a while the team were certainly rooted in some of the failures of the past and it said much for the determination of front players Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey, that they were able to conjure some threat while operating in front of a team capable of such sudden breakdowns in mere competence throughout the first half.
Capello, though, performed his increasingly celebrated half-time act of appraisal and exhortation and last night, words that had come to seem quite empty took on a life of their own.
This will never be regarded as a famous English performance but it carried a rare force of redemption. It showed that England are a team who are operating under the force of proper control, proper values.Reuse content