World famous... Or will Rooneyless England be just a footnote in history?

Never mind the Crouch dance craze, it will be the South American rhythms of Argentina or Brazil that will call the tune on the World Cup stage

But after four decades of tears and recrimination isn't this the moment for '66 to become a reference point, not a defining date in history? Shouldn't Ramsey's team now be able to confine the retelling of "I was there, lad" stories to their grandsons, not the entire nation?

There is increasing desperation in some of today's counterparts. None more so than within Gary Neville, stalwart for a decade and more, who would walk across burning Coles, Ashley and Joe, just to stroke the World Cup covetously.

"At the end of my career, I'll be able to say, 'All right, I tried, I gave 100 per cent in every match'," he says. "But then I think of Nobby Stiles. He only won 28 caps, yet he's got a World Cup winner's medal. I'd happily swap 40 or 50 of my caps for one. Nobby changed people's lives and that's what I want.

"There'd be millions on the streets in London. We'd be in an open-topped bus, just like the rugby boys. The whole country would stop. Only then could I say, 'Well, I played for England for all those years, and it's meant something'. There'd be a medal to show for it at the end: World Cup winner 2006.

"I don't see anything that should concern an England team that has Terry, Ferdinand, Campbell, the Coles, Lampard, Gerrard, Beckham, Owen and Rooney. There is the opportunity, if we can just get it right. It's within our grasp."

Stirring stuff. But that was uttered late last year. Then, the Manchester United full-back's ebullience was understandable. Eriksson's tree of bounteous talent was in full bud. Not so now. Shake it, and bruised fruit have fallen. A year ago, England could triumph on 9 July because of what they possessed. Now, they will have to succeed despite themselves. Eriksson's men arrive in Baden-Baden tomorrow with the most significant team member crocked, and though Wayne Rooney has taken a few cautious steps towards his own recovery - an act regarded in more hysterical media quarters as one giant leap for Sven-kind - the prospect of him making a real contribution is remote.

Then there are at least two creaking bodies in Ashley Cole and Michael Owen, and who knows what level of fatigue in the rivets of the collective frames of the remainder. And what of the inexperience? At the start of the season, Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon were more likely to claim Blue Peter badges than World Cup medals.

England also have a head coach who knows, after the initial group stage has been negotiated, that he is 90 minutes away from glory, but also one wrong decision away from bidding an ignominious farewell - and never emulating Ramsey.

Until a repetition of such a momentous occurrence, we will continue to dwell on the past, when England were less a nation of flag-wavers, more one of, well, Willie-brandishers. World Cup Willie was the official mascot for the tournament and Lonnie Donegan sang a sweet ditty about the little Union flag-clad fellow.

Now England are blessed with Willie Windsor, that president of the FA and Prince of Cool, for whom Peter Crouch offered a repeat show of his robotic dancing. The Liverpool striker can perhaps be permitted to indulge in that disposition as long as his foot-shuffling with the ball in and around the opposition penalty area continues to exceed anything we should expect from a man of his freakish stature.

In just over a month's time, though, you suspect it will be South American rhythms which will once again be in vogue. Brazil or Argentina? Take your choice. The former seemingly never have to be at their optimum to claim a prize which sometimes appears virtually theirs in perpetuity, and will continue to be so while they boast on their roster Ronaldo, who only needs two more goals to become the World Cup's all-time leading scorer; and the world's most treasured performer, Ronaldinho.

Notwithstanding that friendly defeat by England, Argentina's wily midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme and their teenage phenomenon Lionel Messi will bring trepidation to Eriksson should those avowed rivals meet in the quarter-finals. However, first Argentina have to emerge from a group which also contains Holland and an Ivory Coast team whose personnel include Kolo Touré and Didier Drogba.

The Holland midfielders Mark van Bommel and Arjen Robben, and a striker named Ruud van Nistelrooy, are sufficient to warrant respect for Marco van Basten's young team. And wouldn't the FA's kingmakers just love it if World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari galvanised Portugal to a possible quarter-final head-to-head with England, whom he spurned recently. Possibly not.

Eliminated four years ago by South Korea, Marcello Lippi's Italy are equipped to reach the semi-finals, particularly now that Francesco Totti has returned after suffering a broken leg. The hosts, coached by the California-based Jürgen Klinsmann, may not be rated by football's cognoscenti. They are regarded as deficient in quality (although rivals will always be wary of Michael Ballack), which is just how Germany prefer it. They appear destined for the semi-finals at least. Could Australia be the new USA, and surprise us all? Quite possibly.

In '66, Ramsey's men seized the moment by dint of his preparation and ability to adapt to circumstances. From experience you somehow doubt that Eriksson can work a similar miracle, though the Swede does make one highly pertinent remark in his own idiosyncratic English: "Who will win the World Cup for us are the senior players, for sure."

This is their time: a month for Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole to demonstrate that though they may regularly strut imperiously through Premiership encounters they are not merely high plains drifters in this rarified atmosphere.

This is the time for Gerrard, as honest as an empty House of Commons, to translate those FA Cup final heroics, which embod-ied a fine season, into World Cup splendour. For young King Cole - Joe, that is - who has been a sorry old soul on occasions, to come of age. For Terry to exhibit that, at this level, he is truly an action man for the Noughties. For Beckham, about whom doubts still persist, to become recognised as a genuine captain and more than merely mine host of the most kitsch parties. And, not to put it too delicately, for Eriksson finally to provide value for his £20 million FA handout.

The reality is that even a Rooneyless England are capable of adorning the semi-finals. Then it's down to luck and judgement. Eriksson's, that is. His men have to retain their belief. Leave the if onlys (we had Rooney), the buts (Michael Owen's not fully fit), and the maybes (if we had another experienced striker) to we laptop lads and to the cynics back at home.

Only then will the feat of '66 be consigned to a place of nostalgia, rather than constantly being used to beat the current generation about its frustrated head.

THE PREDICTION GAME

Nick Townsend

1 Argentina
2 Brazil
3 Spain
4 Italy
Surprise package: Australia
Golden boot: Hernan Crespo (Arg)

Steve Tongue

1 Argentina
2 Brazil
3 Italy
4 England
Surprise package: Australia
Golden boot: Ronaldinho (Brazil)

George Cohen

1 Argentina
2 Brazil
3 England
4 Holland
Surprise package: Japan
Golden boot: Ronaldo (Brazil)

Jason Burt

1 France
2 Brazil
3 Argentina
4 Holland
Surprise package: Ghana
Golden boot: Thierry Henry (France)

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