For the second time in a week Wayne Rooney marched out of a football stadium with a face like thunder on Friday night, clutching a coffee carton just as tightly as the half-eaten apple he had in his hand after the draw with the USA six days earlier. No FCUK U boots on his feet this time because Rooney did not need any subliminal way of conveying his message.
Fabio Capello does not know what is going on in Rooney's mind but did acknowledge yesterday that there is something not right about it. "He's training on the pitch for more time that the other players, he's perfect," Capello said. "This is not a problem of [fitness]. The problem is in the mind. I know this. You say OK, OK, but when you go to the pitch..." The sentence was left hanging, in no need of completion.
Rooney did however apologise last night "for any offence caused" by his actions when walking off at the end of the 0-0 draw with Algeria. He was heard to say on TV: "Nice to see your own fans booing you. If that's what loyal support is for fuck's sake."
The deeper mystery is why, as Capello put it, "we train and everything is perfect, but when we play the players are not the same". It is not the symptom of England's malaise which baffles him – "I think the fear of the World Cup is in the minds of the players" – but the fact that it has returned to his side, two and a half years after he arrived and found it.
Capello believes the debilitating pressure of his first games dissolved away, never to return, with the 4-1 win in Croatia in November 2008, which ignited the World Cup qualifying campaign. "I remember the first game against Switzerland at Wembley [in February 2008]," he said. "After the performance against Croatia [in September 2008] we started to play differently," – the implication being that England are only one game away from renaissance again.
The moment that the pressure really told on England was during a 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic at Wembley, six months later, when Rooney was poor and his team-mates were booed off after Joe Cole's 92nd-minute goal had rescued them. But the events of the last eight days demand that we also revise Capello's view that we have never looked backed since Theo Walcott's great night in Zagreb. Since then, the only wins against challenging sides have been the 2-1 triumph in Berlin in November 2008, a victory secured five minutes from the end of a home match with Ukraine in April 2009 and the 5-1 win against a pitiful Croatia at Wembley last September.
The pressure never went away because England have proved nothing yet. They look like – and are – a side shackled with the global fame of Premier League status and yet the knowledge that as an international side they have achieved nothing. "Really we have to play like we do in training. Passes, passes, passes, really well, really good," said Capello. "The problem is not just when we have the ball, we have to win back the ball very quickly." But England were paralysed on Friday night by an awareness that hype surrounding them was coming to nothing again.
You feel a little levity might just help break the shackles. When Rooney spoke this week of the deathly boredom of the routine of "breakfast, train, bed, eat", it called to mind the reclusive process imposed on the Juventus players, Capello included, in the 1970s. When Ajax turned up in Belgrade, hair permed, pretty wives and girlfriends in tow for the 1973 European Cup final they were so relaxed they dominated the Italian side.
There are no serious divisions or problems in the England camp and when training begins again today it will be as intense as any nation's.
Capello hinted at changes for the Slovenia game in Port Elizabeth on Wednesday and perhaps central to his thoughts might be the wisdom of playing Rooney alone up front and giving Joe Cole a role down the left, releasing Steven Gerrard to play behind Wayne Rooney. "I can change, do different things, we have time to prepare for this really important game for us," Capello said.Reuse content