Mandela 'refuseniks' put England careers first

Southgate defends players who opted to concentrate on today's friendly instead of meeting South Africa statesman
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The Independent Football

Should their first international in sub-Saharan Africa follow the same pattern as the press relations campaign which is being conducted alongside it, England's footballers can expect to emerge victorious, but not without conceding an own goal.

Any pretence that tonight's friendly against South Africa in the ABSA Stadium is not primarily a PR exercise finally disappeared with yesterday's 6am alarm call for those members of the squad who took the chance to fly to Johannesburg and meet Nelson Mandela. That eight members of the squad passed up on the invitation from the former first President of post-apartheid South Africa is the only false step England have made here. Their absenteeism underlined that the person some players most want to influence is Sven Goran Eriksson.

For their hosts this match may mark the launch of their bid to stage the 2010 World Cup. For the Football Association it may be about repaying a debt, making a friend who may come in useful, and earning around £3m on the side. For the England manager and his players tonight's match is part of the build-up to the European Championship qualifier against Slovakia on 11 June and Eriksson still has a few positions to fill.

The absence of regulars Gary Neville, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole, and, for the Slovakia tie, David Beckham, means opportunity is knocking for several players. One is Gareth Southgate, who was among the eight remaining in Durban. Southgate, who this summer has what could be his last chance to establish himself in the England defence under Eriksson, made a cogent case for the absentees. "It was purely logistics," he said. "We had a night flight from London on Monday and I only got two hours' sleep. To go to Johannesburg would have been a very early start. I just felt as an individual to prepare I needed more rest and the extra travel was not conducive to playing. I need to give myself every chance.

"It was not straightforward because it is a great honour and I thought about it very seriously. It is a massive thing for some of the boys, but I am here to represent England on a football field."

Of the other players remaining in their beds, Danny Mills and Phil Neville will also be playing for their place, Paul Robinson wants to challenge David James' right to be David Seaman's successor while the fringe players, Joe Cole and Gareth Barry, are desperate to impress having been omitted from the original squad. Paul Scholes has already met Mandela, as has Neville, and hates any publicity orientated event. Stephen Gerrard is painfully aware his back problems can be exacerbated by flying.

However, that only 12 of the 20-man squad attended did raise eyebrows. Lucas Radebe, the captain of Leeds and South Africa, expressed the feelings of many locals when he said: "I was a bit surprised they did not go to meet the world's greatest statesman. It is a part of this game. He means a great deal to all people in South Africa and I would have thought everybody would be there." All the South African squad went to Johannesburg.

Given the logistics, there was no easy way around this issue. To have sent Beckham alone would have disappointed the many squad members who wished to meet Mandela while to enforce full attendance would have been unfair on men like Southgate. The meeting itself went well, even if the publicity part largely revolved around Mandela, Beckham and Radebe with the rest a supporting cast. Beckham accepted Mandela's request he support South Africa's 2010 bid and expressed a wish to play in a South African World Cup (he will then be 35).

With Beckham's growing ambassadorial skills being complemented by the FA providing Durban schoolchildren with souvenirs and the chance to watch training England have, on balance, won friends here. With their opponents still in chaos, having stood down the manager at the weekend and selected a new squad, they should follow up by winning the match.

Several European-based players have failed to meet their late call-up and, last night officials, having finally reached Quinton Fortune, were still trying to persuade him to attend. Two Premiership players are expected to play, Radebe and Charlton's Shaun Bartlett.

Eriksson will start with his preferred best XI which at present has Mills, Southgate and Phil Neville deputising for Gary Neville, Campbell and Ashley Cole. Trevor Sinclair is back on the problematic left flank and Emile Heskey is keeping Wayne Rooney's place warm. Neville and Heskey may be fortunate as, had the FA known Southampton were to play Wayne Bridge and James Beattie in a friendly at Aberdeen on Monday, they would have been asked to travel here. They were left out to rest after the FA Cup final and Eriksson was surprised and disappointed they played at Pittodrie.

The last time that a British side played an international in this arena, Jeremy Guscott kicked a last-minute drop goal on the 1997 Lions rugby union tour to win the series against South Africa. This match is unlikely to be quite as dramatic but, for some of the players, it could prove just as significant.