James Lawton: Capello right to put faith in team's competitive character
At least they have shown an inclination to fight and live in the real world
The last time Spain lost 1-0 before Saturday's defeat by England it was in their opening game in last year's World Cup against Switzerland in Durban. Some thought this signalled an extraordinary convulsion in the distribution of world football power, which as it turned out could only have been rivalled by the declaration that several UFOs had just landed on Table Mountain.
It is thus reassuring that England's splendid triumph is being seen largely for what it is, which is to say encouraging evidence that with the passing of that mythic golden generation, and the continued unreliability of some of the nation's biggest football names, an increasing emphasis is being placed on pure competitive character.
This, above all else, is what gave England, like Switzerland, the opportunity to prove that with sound tactical understanding of all possibilities, there is a reasonable chance of containing and, once in a while, even beating the most gifted team in the world.
It left us with not only a rare night to remember at Wembley but also one that kept drawing us back, with quite extraordinary precision, to that other one beside the Indian Ocean.
Indeed, the similarities ran so deep it was something of a relief to recall that the Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, whose reputation as one of football's most knowing figures is in roughly the same bracket as Fabio Capello's, was not required to wear a floral button-hole in a public atonement for missing his son's wedding. In all else, though, the old foxes were working almost uncannily from the same hymn book.
Even the winning strike was separated by a mere three minutes, Frank Lampard's decisive 49th minute goal coming that little bit earlier than the killing opportunism of Switzerland's Gelson Fernandes in the Moses Mabhida stadium. The rest of it could have come straight off the copying machine: England absorbing Spain's intricate pressure, ceding the ball and space and putting so many bodies behind the ball that Il Capo's dream of avoiding the nightmare of having to chase the game at any point was achieved, albeit extremely perilously in the closing minutes.
If, however, Cesc Fabregas was profligate in those final minutes, if David Villa was a millimetre or two off his best touch and David Silva was for once more showy than consequential, England had plenty of reasons for deep-running satisfaction.
When all the dubious confectionery was tossed aside, including the absurd poppy agitation and the ongoing crisis of John Terry's racism charges, this was a friendly match of uncommon significance for the morale of English football.
In some ways, the essential problem it faces was scarcely nudged. The shortfall in natural ability and easy technique when set against that of the world champions remained huge, there were moments when it seemed inevitable that Villa or Silva or Fabregas would announce a crushing separation of possibilities, but all the time England suggested they knew what they were about. It may not have been about the scaling of mountains but it was to do with keeping their feet and their heads and they did this conspicuously well.
Phil Jones may not have been the supreme example – not with Joleon Lescott, Phil Jagielka and Scott Parker offering master-class seminars in knowing who you are and what you can do – but it was little short of stunning to see the big 19-year-old grappling with the inventions of such as Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. Neither of the little big men were anywhere near their most incisive, but even on their less inspired outings they could create doubt in the minds of the oldest heads. Frequently they inflicted such pain on Jones, but each time he shook himself like a fighter clearing his head and returned to his business.
He may not be the natural-born midfield titan Capello seems to have in mind but he has a boldness of spirit and sharpness of mind that seems bound to push him into the category of footballer most admired by a man like Capello. This is to say a young player of self-belief and a controlled but visible passion.
Where any of this will take England in the European finals next summer – not to mention a radically different friendly match exercise against Sweden tomorrow night – is not so easy to say.
Yet certainly there are good reasons for a fair measure of encouragement. Capello's torment as England's head coach probably reached its most excruciating level in Cape Town when he confessed after the execrable draw with Algeria that when he looked out on the field he did not recognise his team. It was not so much an excuse as a confession; if a coach cannot identify with his product, if he cannot begin to explain the nature or the reasons for its failure, his options have become very limited indeed. This was what persuaded some of us that Capello would indeed walk away after England returned to the high veldt to fold their tents. Instead, he insisted that he would stay and fight for what was left of his reputation in England – the one theatre of football action where his credentials no longer spoke for themselves. By staying to fight or, as some might say, collect on his contract, Capello has of course put himself at fresh risk. Yet maybe he is also operating with a new level of freedom. He has made the point, which should be self-evident, that in terms of talent he is operating from some considerable weakness. So what is his last investment in English football?
It is the character that Johan Cruyff, no less, described as unique in the world game. "Their skills may not be as developed as many of their European or South American rivals," said the Golden Dutchman, "but everyone has to respect their ability to fight, to compete. It is something they are born with."
Maybe it is a quality that Capello, when he looks at the performances of men like Jagielka and Jones, Lescott and Parker, has come to identify as his last chance. After beating the world champions-elect, Switzerland slid, exhausted, off the great stage. Naturally, Capello hopes that his new young heroes stand a little more firmly amid the tides of football history. At least they have shown an inclination to fight – and live in the real world. Who can say this isn't a decent new start?
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