James Lawton: Forget 'Poppy Power' – England's battle is to arrest this long decline


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Of the first three questions Fabio Capello faced on the eve of England's latest ordeal in the face of Spain's overwhelming superiority, of naturally cultivated skill, refined technical development, superb philosophical range and utterly exceptional individual ability in all aspects of the game, the first concerned John Terry's difficulties with the racist allegations still being investigated by the Metropolitan Police.

The other two – you may not be totally staggered to hear – were about poppies.

All in all, it was not overwhelming evidence that a fading football nation which in another age managed to win the World Cup was launching a serious investigation into quite why the possibility of another full-scale humiliation looms so ominously at Wembley tonight.

Indeed, when the second poppy question came in – it asked if Il Capo was outraged that it took an initiative from Prince William to upset the Fifa stand against the image of a poppy being sewn into the England shirts – you were put in mind of the reply his predecessor Sir Alf Ramsey gave to a notoriously obsequious Glasgow reporter when he was welcomed on to the soil of Bonnie Scotland at Prestwick airport. "You must be fucking joking," said the England boss.

Capello contented himself with one of those sinking expressions which hint powerfully that all things being equal he would rather be having an espresso and a small cake in the Galleria of Milan or inspecting some of his art treasures back in the Swiss chalet.

The Terry question was, of course, fair enough. Terry would definitely play against Sweden next week in accordance with Capello's belief that you are innocent until proven guilty, but he would sit out the game against Spain and thus allow young contenders like Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka to make their claims for next summer's European Championship finals.

However, the poppy questions were, once again, sufficient to explain to any casual visitor from Mars that the debate about the parlous state of English football is not exactly rooted in the everyday realities of winning and losing at the highest level.

The trouble is that English football has become, rather like the poppy story, a bizarre and somewhat maudlin joke. Here for example is the straight-faced introduction to the main sports story yesterday of one of the nation's most influential newspapers: "England's players promised to honour the nation's war dead when they wear the poppy tomorrow and hope it will inspire them to victory against world champions Spain."

Apart from being a "massive honour," wearing the poppy would put the footballers' challenge "in perspective".

All this talk of "Poppy Power" would be seriously creepy in itself, even without the ineffably inappropriate suggestion that the ultimate sacrifices of millions of brave men and women might somehow have some precise relevance to the challenge of kicking a football around Wembley for 90 minutes.

Capello's English is often a source of mockery but it was more than equal to the challenge of closing down the week of apparently unbreakable saccharine sentiment with a touch of dignity. "I respect the soldier, I am proud to put it [the poppy] here," he said, touching his breast.

What any of this had to do with the daunting chore of attempting to staunch the brilliance of Spain was plainly something quite beyond him – as it might have been at any point since the beauty of Barcelona's football began to spill over into the Spanish team on the way to the triumphs in the European Championship of 2008 and last year's World Cup in South Africa.

Spain have moved on to an entirely higher plateau of the game. Not only do Spain hold the three great trophies available to a European football nation, the World Cup, the European Championship and the Champions League, they have also created a supply line of players that dwarfs so profoundly the English game which tonight attempts to step in their path.

What is so maddening – and would surely have driven the great patriot Ramsey, creator of England's sole World Cup triumph, to disbelief is the point that Capello raised amid much indifference earlier this week. While attempting to bat away the poppy question – "for me, it is politics, and I am about football" – he ran into the charge that he was already making his excuses before the certainty of another crash in next summer's European finals. In fact, Capello's main point, a quite unanswerable one you have to believe, was that England can hardly expect to be a front-rank football nation while the Premier League so relentlessly denudes itself of home-grown players.

Here is the league table of major European nations in the vital matter of providing opportunities for native players in the nations' top leagues: Spain (the world's No 1 team), 63 per cent; the Netherlands (World Cup finalists last summer), 63; France (world champions in 1998, European champions in 2000), 62; Italy (world champions, 2006), 50; Germany (World Cup finalists 2002, and three-time winners), 47. This leaves England at 39 per cent, eight per cent down on Germany and finding every distraction under the sun – this year it is poppies – to avoid serious discussion about why the fall has been so irreversible.

For some members of England's World Cup-winning team a match with Spain always carries a built-in poignancy for it was in Madrid in November 1965, that Ramsey unveiled the blueprint for World Cup victory.

Sir Bobby Charlton recalls: "We played with such confidence that night, we had the sense that we could achieve anything. Some of the Spanish defenders held up their hands, as if to say that they just couldn't cope." The Spanish coach, Jose Villalonga, declared that night: "England were phenomenal tonight. The way they played you would have to back them to beat any team in the world."

What odds against such a statement from his successor, Vicente del Bosque, at Wembley tonight? Huge, of course, and as they will stay right up to the moment English football re-makes itself. Not with poppy power or any other kind of borrowed glory, but a little honesty and courage of its own.

Getting rid of Tindall is first step in RFU's rehabilitation

It is not vengeful or gloating to welcome the £25,000 fine and dismissal from the England rugby squad of Mike Tindall.

Rather it is to acknowledge the fact that the Rugby Football Union, which recently has become a parody of professional sports administration, has at last reached out in an attempt to re-establish some decent values.

Tindall's irresponsibility in New Zealand, when as vice-captain of the World Cup squad he so shockingly betrayed the trust of his manager and former World Cup-winning team-mate Martin Johnson, could not be allowed to fester in the memory.

It is only now that we learn of the extent of Johnson's anger at Tindall's refusal to shoulder any responsibility for the breakdown in discipline implicit in the player's rejection of the suggestion that he should make a public act of contrition which might have allowed a line to be drawn under the business of "Dwarfgate".

Instead, Tindall kept his head down and allowed his colleagues to compound the disaster with pathetic claims that they were victims of some kind of media conspiracy. Only this last weekend Chris Ashton, while publicising his autobiography, complained of the harsh treatment meted out by those whose job was to report on the World Cup.

Mark Cueto said it was a very sad world when rugby players could no longer go out for a "few beers". Tindall and his mates, we were told, were indulging in just a little bit of banter.

It was nothing of the sort. It was dereliction of their duty as representatives of their country and as professional sportsmen. It may well have cost Johnson his job, which is sad, but not quite as profoundly so as it might have been if no one had been called to some kind of account.