If Fabio Capello was in any doubt about the vicissitudes of life as a national team manager, that illusion has now been firmly dispelled.
Like many of his predecessors, he has been through the frustrations of having so few games and so little time; the chaos that regularly engulfs his employers the Football Association; the indiscipline of his players, on or off the field; his own contractual uncertainties and ill-advised commercial undertakings; (briefly) hostile media coverage; a David Beckham injury plus all the attention that goes with that; and now the crowning moment, as what should be his most exciting week in the job so far begins with Rio Ferdinand being ruled out of the World Cup.
Oscar Wilde misquotations about the carelessness of losing two captains do not quite ring true for – again like his predecessors from Walter Winterbottom onwards – he is at the mercy of events. Sacking the previous captain was well received and has done no perceptible harm, possibly offering John Terry even greater incentive to redeem himself. Even Beckham's ruptured achilles reduced the headache of how many wingers could be fitted into the final squad. To lose the new captain, a key defensive player, was something else.
Out at the England training complex, Capello was trying not to take any of it personally. "I think I'm really upset for the players," he said. "To work, to train for one year to be focused to play this World Cup, because it's not easy, I think it's frustrating for the players. For me, I'm prepared that some players will be injured but I hope always during the game, not during training. This is the big difference between the players and between me."
As to the effect on the side he was intending to pick for Saturday night's opening game with the United States in Rustenburg: "More or less I know, but Rio was in the first XI and it's better not to think about this first XI because someone will be not fit."
True enough. Breath will have to be held throughout tomorrow's friendly against the Platinum All Stars, a South African league team who may be keen to test their reputations against some big names.
Capello appears prepared to put his own stars' reputations on the line for at least 45 minutes. "This is the job," he said. "Friendly games, but Rooney, Gerrard want to play. You have to prepare [for] the game against the USA, you have to be careful about the injuries but we have to prepare for the game. You can play 45 minutes. I have to play all the players that will play against the USA . For 45 minutes, for 60 minutes." Is it a risk? "I don't know. I touch wood."
Perhaps "Knock On Wood" should have been recorded as England's World Cup record. Time, however, to look on the less dark side. It is hardly unique for England to have to do without one of their first-choice centre-halves: Ferdinand and Terry played together in less than half of the qualifying group matches. So naming quite so many central defenders proved a sensible precaution; all the more so when arriving at the camp yesterday to learn that Ledley King had trained only in the gym and Matthew Upson missed training with a high temperature. What is doubly unfortunate is that Upson has never quite convinced in his international career of 19 caps, while King, although a favourite of the manager's, looked short of pace in the friendly with Mexico and will struggle to fulfil a schedule of Saturday-Friday-Wednesday group matches.
Jamie Carragher could also come into contention, therefore, thankfully in his proper position as centre-half, not an emergency right-back. The side seems likely to be aligned in a familiar 4-4-2, despite Capello's rather odd, repeated affirmation that the modern formation of all teams is "9-1". The nine are assumed to be defenders rather than attackers, but the English public will expect something a little less Italian than that, and most would probably want to see Peter Crouch in from the start as Rooney's partner, leaving Emile Heskey and Jermain Defoe as the respective replacements from the substitutes' bench should things not be going well. Darren Bent will not be one, having been drummed out of the squad after proving incompatible with Rooney, and Theo Walcott's omission suggests Aaron Lennon is on pole for the right-hand berth.
If Gareth Barry continues training well – he has come through two days' work unscathed – he could go straight into the side on Saturday, which would allow Steven Gerrard to play on the left. The feeling suddenly spread after a moderate first half against Mexico recently that Gerrard is much better used centrally. He has proved, however, that he can be effective coming in from the flank, linking closely with Rooney. Part of the problem against the Mexicans was that Leighton Baines was far less confident than Ashley Cole will be about using the space down the line that Gerrard vacates; one of England's strengths should be the two full-backs' attacking abilities.
If it was considered prudent to hold Barry back for the second game, against Algeria on Friday week, then we would be back to the future, with Frank Lampard alongside Gerrard, a combination the Chelsea man insists can work perfectly well: "I do get a bit fed up with being asked about it," he said yesterday. "It's been a nice two-year break from [questions]. Intelligent players should be able to [play together]."
As players like that pair are well aware, with four tournaments between them, the first game is one it is vital not to lose, rather than one that determines the shape of a whole tournament. As a rough generality, England have tended to do better when starting poorly (1966, 1986, 1990) than when racing out of the blocks and increasing expectations (a goal after just 27 seconds in 1982).
One other matter has to be made public soon, although Capello says his mind is made up about who will be in goal. It is true Robert Green has been given most games (six) this season, but for three of them David James was injured. The Portsmouth goalkeeper is now fit and issued a reminder of his qualities on a big stage at the FA Cup final. It would not be a surprise if he was awarded the gloves to go with the No 1 jersey already allocated.
The United States will provide physical, hard-running opposition, possibly testing the referee as much as England. They have benefited from having an increasing number of players appearing in Europe, and showed up well at the Confederations Cup last summer. As long as England manage a win, even one as unimpressive as the opening 1-0 success against Paraguay four years ago, they will go confidently into what should be the least demanding of the group games, against an Algerian side a little lucky to be here.
"Playing with pride and glory" says the motto on the side of the England team coach; the bus, not the manager, although the same could doubtless be said of him come Saturday evening.
England at the World Cup
1950: Group stage (in Brazil)
One team progressed from each group and despite beating Chile in the opener, defeats by USA and Spain ensured England left early.
1954: Quarter-finals – Uruguay 4, England 2 (Switzerland)
Uruguay were never behind and although goals from Nat Lofthouse and Tom Finney gave England hope, Uruguay were comfortable winners.
1958: Group stage (Sweden)
England again failed to get out of the group. Drawing all three matches against the Soviet Union, Brazil and Austria saw them finish tied with the Russians but a 1-0 defeat in a play-off ended any hopes.
1962: Quarter-finals – Brazil 3, England 1 (Chile)
Walter Winterbottom's men had to face the holders in the last eight. Gerry Hitchens equalised Garrincha's opener but strikes from Garrincha and Vava finished them off.
1966: Winners – England 4, West Germany 2 (England)
Goals from Geoff Hurst (three) and Martin Peters were enough for the hosts to lift the World Cup for the first and, so far, only time. The Germans scored in the last minute to take the game to extra time but Hurst scored, with assistance from the Azerbaijani linesman, before completing his hat-trick with the final kick of the game.
1970: Quarter-finals – West Germany 3, England 2 (Mexico)
The Germans gained revenge for '66. Goals from Alan Mullery and Martin Peters saw Alf Ramsey's side take the lead but Franz Beckenbauer and Uwe Seeler levelled matters before Gerd Muller's extra-time winner.
1982: Second group stage (Spain)
Goalless draw against West Germany meant Ron Greenwood's side had to beat hosts Spain 2-0 to go through but another 0-0 meant they were out despite being unbeaten.
1986: Quarter-finals – Argentina 2, England 1 (Mexico)
Diego Maradona's double – a handball followed by one of the best goals of all time – saw off England.
1990: Semi-finals – West Germany 1, England 1 (lost 4-3 on pens) (Italy)
England's first appearance in a semi-final on foreign soil but a familiar foe. West Germany took the lead through Andreas Brehme's deflected free-kick but Lineker scored to take the game to extra time, before the dreaded penalties. Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle both missed.
1998: Last 16 – Argentina 2 England 2 (lost 4-3 on pens) (France)
Gabriel Batistuta made it 1-0 but England led through Alan Shearer and a Michael Owen wonder goal. Javier Zanetti equalised before David Beckham was sent off for kicking Diego Simeone. Penalties again. Paul Ince and David Batty fluffed lines.
2002: Quarter-finals – Brazil 2, England 1 (Japan)
Michael Owen gave England the lead but goals from Rivaldo and Ronaldinho's free-kick (probably a fluke) put Brazil ahead. Sven Goran Eriksson's men were impotent despite playing against 10 men for over half an hour after Ronaldinho's red card.
2006: Quarter-finals – Portugal 0, England 0 (3-1 on pens) (Germany)
Penalties. England held on after Wayne Rooney was sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho. Only Owen Hargreaves scored his penalty as Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher all blew it.
(England failed to qualify for the 1974, 1978 and 1994 World Cups)Reuse content