James Lawton: England betrayed again by a failure of nerve and technique

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The Independent Online

We make jokes of England and their missed penalties but it would be a brave man who tried one now. Nor are we likely to see David Beckham and Darius Vassell, the men whose failures on the spot sent England home on an early plane, involved in any reproduction of the pizza advert launched by Chris Waddle, Stuart Pierce and Gareth Southgate after England's ejections from the World Cups of 1990 and 1998.

This has gone beyond a joke. It is a failure of both nerve and technique. When first Beckham and then Vassell missed, a thousand demons danced in the lights of the Estadio da Luz.

It left us with the bleak conclusion that while a penalty shoot-out is a gamble in every corner of the football world, for England it is nothing less than an investigation of the soul. And each time it happens, that soul is somehow diminished.

No, there is simply no getting around it. We can't make jokes or light-hearted TV adverts. Not for some considerable time. Not, perhaps, until England win a major football tournament. There will, no doubt, be claims that England should have been spared the shoot-out, that Sol Campbell's header in the last seconds should have carried the night. But the referee ruled a foul on the goalkeeper, Ricardo, and so that is history.

For Beckham it is surely hard to know when the agony will end. He missed his second penalty of the championship as England slid out after the utterly draining quarter-final battle with Portugal. Bravely, some might say suicidally, the England captain stepped up to take the first penalty after extra time had ended 2-2.

There were, no doubt, deeper reasons for the defeat, but this one, after those World Cup ejections and the one from the European Championship of 1996, seemed like a final savage stroke from fate. In fact England had run themselves to a standstill as the Portuguese sent down wave upon wave of attacks on the English goal. If England want to plead bad luck, they first should count up the number of times they gave up the ball in the second half.

Before the final melodrama, when the old hero Eusebio raced on to the pitch to embrace his successors in Portuguese shirts, England had lost Wayne Rooney and a lot of that self-belief which had poured from the eruption of his stunningly precocious talent. But they didn't forget to fight, and the result was a game so taut that the Estadio da Luz roared itself almost to the point of silence.

We will never know precisely the cost of Rooney's departure to the England cause, but no doubt his leaving in the 26th minute following a tackle by Portugal's central defender Jorge Andrade changed the quarter-final into something quite different. England, launched by a brilliant third-minute goal from the redeemed Michael Owen, had been playing with the assurance that comes when you know you can easily marshal serious menace. That went with Rooney. However, in its place there came a a tremendous fighting spirit.

But then at this level of football the capacity to fight is something that can take you only so far. Other factors come into play, and knowing how to hold the ball, and control a game after you have taken a lead, is quite fundamental.

England, who were obliged to replace the exhausted Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard in the second half, need not have any fear of a questioning of their guts. Long before the end they were dead men running, but how they ran, and how they fought, and Frank Lampard, who hasn't always been the persuasive figure in this championship that he has been for Chelsea, was the essence of that determination in the end.

He scored the goal that carried England back into the match in the second half of extra time, and then there was, once again, reason for hope.

Until, that is, the desperate moment when their fate became enmeshed again in their inability to deliver victory in a shoot-out. For some footballers a shoot-out is a challenge of nerve. For those of England, more than ever now, it is something resembling a crucifixion.

Beckham's recovery from this will be long and painful. So will that of all his team-mates. This was a game they will always believe they should have won. But the truth is that basic skill deserted them and now they can only reflect on the void that came when Rooney left the field.

England played with tremendous heart but in the end they were unable to rescue their fate. They missed some penalties, it is true, but they also showed again that they didn't quite know how to win.

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