And so, barring the improbable assistance of those footballing pygmies Macedonia, Israel and Andorra, England will spend next summer selling a soiled brand in Asia or the Americas while the real football goes on in Europe.
Say what you like about Sven Goran Eriksson, and most people have, England always qualified under him, three tournaments in succession, and they reached the quarter-finals when they got there. Now they look like missing out on qualification for the first time since Graham Taylor's team, often bereft of Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer, failed to reach the 1994 World Cup finals. It is an unforgivable situation given the quality of players available. England's footballers are over-hyped but while it is ridiculous to assume England should always win tournaments it is not unreasonable to expect they will qualify, especially when the opposition include a Russian team which has not gone past the first round of a major tournament in its 15-year history.
Steve McClaren will justifiably be the main scapegoat. His selection has at times been ill-judged, notably in dramatically axing the likes of David Beckham, David James and Sol Campbell, then having to recall them. Even more damning has been his approach to the two most important games of the group.
His decision to play three at the back in Croatia was a reckless gamble and there were echoes last night as Joleon Lescott, on his full debut, was asked to tuck in to, effectively, make a third centre-back. This left Joe Cole both exposed and ill-used. A more logical decision would have been to play Gareth Barry in left midfield, he has experience at left-back, with Frank Lampard inside and Cole replacing Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right.
Nevertheless, England were winning and looking comfortable until the referee's intervention. But in the haste to blame the Spanish official it should not be forgotten that Wayne Rooney made a poor decision in bringing Konstantin Zyryanov down, and also that there was a shocking lack of cover – Rooney should not even have needed to be there.
The next few minutes were lamentable as England folded under the shock of conceding. "A mad few minutes," said McClaren, blaming England's collective decision-making if not individuals. The ability to make the correct decisions under pressure is the essence of sporting success. There has been much spoken and written about sporting character in recent weeks with reference to the England rugby team's inspiring ascent from the nadir of their 36-0 humiliation by South Africa.
While this has partly been expressed through mental fortitude the oval-ball code does have a significant advantage over its round-ball cousin. Its protagonists can illustrate their heart, desire, bottle – call it what you will – by the basic method of physically pounding their opponents into the turf.
Footballers have no such release. They can crunch into a tackle, or make a lung-bursting run, but the challenges are generally more mental than physical.
Last night, when they left their dressing room to enter the chill Muscovite night, England's millionaires faced an exacting examination of character. They were on an unnatural, and unfamiliar surface which offered an easy excuse for any player looking for a cop-out. They were also shorn of several key players. The opposition were highly motivated, technically skilled, and backed by a vociferous crowd. Qualification for Euro 2008 was also at stake.
For an hour they responded well. Those players who may have felt most exposed, Lescott, Sol Campbell and Paul Robinson, were part of a solid English defence. Campbell and Ferdinand looked very much the old firm, the partnership which won such acclaim in the 2002 World Cup. The midfield were less impressive and when the penalty award was made, and the test of character ratcheted up several degrees, several players' decision-making went awry.
Russia struck again to leave England teetering on the brink of elimination. Ill luck played a part last night, but over 11 matches and 13 months that evens out. It seems England's players, and manager, collectively lack either the character, or the ability, to keep control of their destiny. It is impossible to decide which is the more disappointing, and damaging flaw.Reuse content