James Lawton: One flash of inspiration from Rooney could still be enough to lift the gloom

Despite the fear hanging over England, the power of a great player to change the destiny of a team must not be forgotten
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The Independent Football

It is a high, exhilarating wind off the Indian Ocean today, racing through the dunes, tearing at the palm trees. You can only imagine how much Fabio Capello would like to line up his men in the face of it and see their fears and their surliness blow away.

Maybe there is no longer such a trick to be played in the world of English football, larded with money and celebrity, but what we do know is that Capello has to pull off something quite dramatic here tonight when his team fight for their place in this World Cup against Slovenia.

He has to get across a message which we can only hope he has not decided, privately, has become impossible over the last few days of half-cocked team rebellion, amid the sense that what seemed so coherent, so positive about England's challenge under one of the world's most decorated coaches has gone horribly wrong, maybe irredeemably so.

He has to say, as best he can in his still fractured English, that the team is playing for more than the victory that will keep them alive in the great tournament in which they so far have been dwarfed by the likes of Brazil and Argentina and, on the most recent evidence, Spain and Portugal.

He has to convey the extraordinary nature of the challenge they face against a team ranked 25th in the world. It is not just to win a single match but retain a morsel of credibility for the idea that the culture of English football is any longer something worthy of the nation's respect and attention.

It is to say the English footballer still has the guts and the competitive character, even the inclination, to brush against the best in the world. We might have been living in another age when the the ill-considered Slovenes were greeted as the final gift in a first-round group so benignly unchallenging it lacked only a red carpet and a floral presentation.

The United States, Algeria and Slovenia formed a group of guaranteed life, not death – yet incredibly, they may be the harbingers of a terrible truth. It is that English football, so long boastful, even smug, about owning the richest, most celebrated league in the world, is lacking in anything like core values. The greatest, most rewarded players are complaining here of boredom, of the unsupportable burden of concentrating their minds for a little more than a month on the tournament which has always been the ultimate lure for the greatest players.

Some like the late George Best pined for the chance to parade their talent on the game's most prestigious stage. Here, England's "stars" talk about the grimness of their existence laid down by an increasingly bemused Capello.

Yet maybe there is a gust of hope with the public repentance made by the man who seemed hell-bent on polarising the discontent, the spurned former captain John Terry.

Perhaps England will step back from the brink of self-immolation with the realisation that they have not only caused disappointment but a kind of disbelieving rage – and a growing sense of the futility in attaching any workable dreams to the men who are supposed to be representing the pride and the happiness of their nation here.

Sir Bobby Charlton, dismayed like so many by last Friday's performance against Algeria, still hangs on to such a hope that somebody, perhaps his favourite Wayne Rooney, will be able to do what he did to galvanise England's only successful World Cup challenge in 1966.

Charlton scored a goal against Mexico which had the force, and the thrill, of this wind now tugging and lifting the spirit here. Suddenly, the nation believed in England again.

Yesterday the bulletin from Charlton's home in Cheshire, to where he has returned from here to watch England's fate at a distance which does nothing to reduce the tension he feels, was that all hope should not be abandoned. He still has faith in the strength of Capello – "I think he is really as strong as an ox" – and continues to believe in Rooney's power to do something utterly exceptional.

"Deep down in my heart," he says, "I cannot believe that England will not make a show against Slovenia. I cannot believe we will not get out of this, at least to some degree."

There is another question, of course, one that no one – and certainly not Charlton, who always thought it a privilege to play football and make a decent living and not have to go the pit or the shipyard – can confidently answer before tonight's game. The question is about the corrosive effect of earning more in a week than the majority of the nation earns in a year.

At what point does it finally destroy the idea that some achievements cannot be measured by wealth or any kind of gratification which is not to do with proving that you have a special talent and that you have nourished it; that you have hurt for it and that nothing could be better than exhibiting it through this drama that is unfolding here, and which has already given us the compelling picture of Lionel Messi reaching out for all the best of himself?

What can Capello really say that he didn't the other night in Cape Town, when he shook his head, much more at that moment at least, in sadness than anger, and said that he had just seen an England he could not begin to recognise? It is a little late now for a grand gesture, probably impractical to take his players down to the shoreline and feel the wind that might ransack their fears or their indifference.

However, Capello might just be drawn to the story told by another of England's heroes of '66, George Cohen. As a young pro with Fulham he was roused from his hotel room in Bristol before dawn by his senior team-mate, the great Chelsea and England player Roy Bentley. An ex-naval man, Bentley marched Cohen through the streets of the empty city in time for them to see dawn rising over the Clifton suspension bridge. "Look at that, son, and don't forget what men can achieve. We're only playing football," said the veteran.

Maybe it is a little late in the game, and this World Cup, to make such a point. But then Capello surely has to try. Otherwise, he might as well pack his bags and his tactics and his lifetime of winning experience and say that he indeed took the impossible job.

It would be a terrible conclusion and one that his players must contradict tonight. The suspicion here is that they will, by a margin of at least two goals.

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