John Terry prides himself on being the heart and soul of the Chelsea dressing room but from the way he reacted to one question yesterday about England's past failures you suspect there are certain jokes he finds very hard to laugh at.
The England captain, one game away from leading his country to the World Cup finals for the first time, was asked if it would cheapen next summer's tournament were the likes of France, Portugal and Argentina not there. It clearly stirred up some memories of England's failure to qualify for Euro 2008 that Terry was not prepared to let pass unmentioned.
"Speaking to the Portuguese lads [at Chelsea] when we didn't qualify, they didn't give a shit that we weren't there," Terry said. "They really didn't care. Portugal and Argentina are struggling at the moment, like we were, so there might be some really big teams not at the World Cup. We need to make sure we get there. We've had that feeling of not being there."
When he said that his team-mates "need to make sure" he was referring to the possibility of England qualifying tonight if they beat Croatia at Wembley. The rest is self-explanatory. If Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Franck Ribery – among others – are not in South Africa, Terry will not shed a tear for any of them.
He had more to get off his chest. "I spoke to Baly [Michael Ballack] about it and the first thing he said, in 2008, was that Germany's chances were greater because England weren't there. Other countries believe that when England don't qualify. We have to put ourselves there but, when we do, we can be relieved that other teams aren't there."
So to put it in slightly less graphic terms than the England captain used, it is tough luck on the big teams who do not make it. Quite right, too. No country has a divine right to be at the World Cup not even if, in the case of Portugal and Argentina, they happen to number among their squads the two best players in the world. Fail and they will just have to face up to the same soul-searching that England embarked on two years ago.
For most of the week, England's players have tried to play down tonight's game against Croatia as simply another qualifier, another step on the way to South Africa. But thoughts have never been too far from the excruciating embarrassment of losing 3-2 at Wembley in November 2007 to a Croatia team that had already qualified for Euro 2008 and, understandably, delighted in embarrassing England all over again.
"This is a chance to correct things," said Terry, who was in the stands that night recovering from an operation on the knee problem that had prevented him from playing the previous qualifier against Russia. He was the player most closely identified with the Steve McClaren regime because he had been made captain and there were no guarantees that he would get the job under the successor.
"We've experienced that feeling of seeing lads [from club sides] tasting success with their countries," Terry said. "We want to get back enjoying that atmosphere of a major tournament. And we should be. We've learnt a lot from that [Euro 2008 debacle]. We always said we were good individually but we needed to put it right as a team, and we're doing that now. Look at the team Argentina have, and yet they're struggling. Any team can. Year after year, at international level, the quality is getting greater."
In the mass condemnation of the McClaren regime, what is often forgotten about that night at Wembley was that England were missing five first-team regulars, including Wayne Rooney. Tonight it is Croatia who are understrength without the injured Luka Modric, Stipe Pletikosa (the first-choice goalkeeper), Robert Kovac, Ivan Juric and the suspended Vedran Corluka.
England have two subsequent qualifiers against Ukraine and Belarus in which they can clinch qualification but there would be a sense of closure on the Euro 2008 campaign horrors if they were to win tonight. They could also do with a performance that matched the result because their last competitive victory over decent opponents, Ukraine, was not their most convincing.
It might well feel like some kind of journey has been completed should England win tonight but in reality it will be only the start. There are still many unresolved problems. Scribble down a probable 23-man squad for South Africa next year and – if the criteria is those who will definitely be on that flight barring injury – you will struggle to get halfway. A personal view is that only 12 are definitely going and that would include Rio Ferdinand whose injury problems are mounting.
Even though Terry clearly does not have total recall – pushed on his earliest World Cup memory he could not even remember the first tournament he watched – his protestation that he did not watch a whole game from Euro 2008 on television rang true.
"I phoned the Chelsea lads and wished them well," he said. "I was in touch with Baly throughout. But I watched about 10 minutes of one game. I couldn't bear it. I was just kicking myself. The feeling that I should be there, we should be there, England should be there. I couldn't bear it."
Today's fixtures: Andorra v Kazakhstan, Belarus v Ukraine, England v Croatia. England's remaining fixtures: Sat 10 Oct Ukraine (a); Wed 14 Oct Belarus (h).Reuse content