English football needs Fabio Capello's first World Cup as a manager to be considerably more successful than his only one as a player; although however badly it goes, the squad are unlikely to be pelted with rotten tomatoes on their return to Luton airport.
That was Italy's fate when they returned home from West Germany in 1974, knocked out at the group stage after losing to Poland, with Capello's late goal counting for nothing. He largely escaped criticism, though whether he avoided the tomatoes is not recorded.
Contemporary reports suggested that friction and factions existed in the Italian camp, as well as constant debate over whether the gifted midfield players Gianni Rivera and Sandro Mazzola could play together - shades of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.Asked about the tournament last week, after England had completed their qualifying campaign with a routine 3-0 victory over Belarus, Capello agreed that the experience was early confirmation of his belief in the importance of team spirit and togetherness.
"I have my style, to drive the team," he said. "And this will be the same style that I used when I was a club manager. I learn. I saw what happened at the last World Cups. But I understand that we have to follow my route. The most important is to be a group. To know what style we have to play on the pitch."
Lack of physical fitness in an ageing squad was another criticism aimed at the 1974 Italians. If Capello|can reasonably expect his England players to be in peak condition at some stage during the season – probably around now – it has always been the case that the squad sets off for tournaments at the end of a draining season, often carrying niggling injuries and deprived of one or two important personnel.
"To have the best players fit" was therefore another necessity that|Capello has learned. "Good condition. After, you have to create the style of the play and the spirit of the group, but the most important thing is to be fit." After which he added another requirement: "To be lucky, because if you are not lucky it is impossible to win."
Luck tends to be a factor in avoiding injuries and it is already a concern for the manager that just as he prepares to finalise his squad in May, the last Premier League games, the FA Cup final and then the Champions' League final take place on successive weekends, with every possibility of contenders for a place being involved in all three.
"Physically we are at the top at this moment but you use a lot of energy in those competitions and some players will arrive who are not in a good moment of fitness," he said with rare pessimism. "I think other teams will want to avoid England. I told you a lot of times we can win against all the teams. I have big confidence in my team and my players. But it depends which moment of form we will arrive at in the World Cup."
All the debate about which players make the final cut of 23 is dependent on that unknown factor. What can be said of the last week of the qualifying campaign is that David James, Ben Foster, Gareth Barry, Peter Crouch, James Milner and, yes, David Beckham have done themselves some good; Robert Green, Michael Carrick, Emile Heskey and Carlton Cole less so.
Gabriel Agbonlahor and Shaun Wright-Phillips, both contenders in oversubscribed areas, need more playing time to impress but will have to find it mostly with their clubs, since only two more friendlies remain |before a provisional squad selection in the second week of May. Time is already running out.Reuse content