Johan Cruyff, who once destroyed England at Wembley while rarely crossing the halfway line, said: "You know I don't think there will ever be a time when the English player is not respected, and feared, across the world of football.
"There is a good reason for this. The English footballer is very brave and strong and committed and there is always enough high-class players in his team to cause concern in any opponent. This is not a passing thing. I have found it always to be the same. It is a national characteristic and it is one you should be proud of."
Cruyff's days as the glory of Dutch football were over then. He was coaching Barcelona and his views were a welcome antidote to a growing despair in this country. Sir Alf Ramsey's reign had collapsed after the failure to qualify for the 1974 finals and, four years later, Don Revie found it impossible to duplicate his success with Leeds United when he took over the national team.
There was a certain poignancy to Cruyff's tribute to the English, who on the face of it had been utterly eclipsed by the "total football" of the Netherlands. Twice, the Dutch had played brilliantly to reach World Cup finals, those of '74 and '78. Twice they lost in the most haunting circumstances, and when Cruyff spoke of the English players' warrior quality there was perhaps a hint of regret about a missing element in his own nation's football.
No such yearnings would have besieged Cruyff in the last month or so - as England's displays against four non-World Cup qualifiers, Denmark, Wales, Northern Ireland and Austria have lurched from one bout of incoherence to another - and this is especially so given the assistance provided by the promising Dutch team in England's qualification But this still leaves an intriguing question: does the old theory of Cruyff still hold good, is it merely waiting for proper leadership, on and off the field?
It is a question which carries us to the heart of what should be the most intensely debatable aspect of tonight's match. Why, we have to ask, is it Michael Owen rather than John Terry who is leading out the team in place of the suspended David Beckham? Who, of contemporary English footballers, most fits Cruyff's identikit drawn on that sunny day at the Nou Camp? Terry, no doubt, heads the candidates.
This is no disrespect to Owen. He is what he is, and this is another kind of glory of the English game: a born goalscorer of deep professionalism whose instinct is to do his job as well as he can and if he has a role of leadership it is one of example. But Terry is surely the Cruyff prototype of the best of the English competitive nature, a man of action and natural leadership. Terry plays with an intensity that cannot fail to brush against, and lift, his team-mates' psyche and spirit.
He is supposed to lack pace, and to a degree this is true, but not cripplingly so. It was said of Bobby Moore that he wasn't exactly the West Ham express. Nor was he, but he saw most things before they happened and had a seek-and-destroy mechanism that was no less acute because it was housed so stylishly.
Comparing Terry and Moore doesn't take us to the real point, however. Terry may never touch the distinction of Moore, who, even in the most compelling action, the kind provoked by somebody like Pele so memorably in Guadalajara in 1970, was much the more cerebral. A little part of him always stayed detached, no doubt the better to read and respond to the game's flow.
The cynical may have their theories about why the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, was so emphatic that the armband surrendered so petulantly by Beckham would pass, as a formality, to Owen, and they have nothing to do with the fact that when the latter twice took over in similar circumstances he scored on both difficult occasions. They may say that the potentially galvanising effect of Terry's leadership might cast in an even more questioning light the coach's faith in the erratic course of Beckham's captaincy.
Whatever the truth, one reality is self-evident. Jose Mourinho's faith in Terry has been devout and magnificently rewarded. This most unforgiving of coaches has seen in Terry the unquenchable force of the English footballer, one that Cruyff recognised so long ago. Perhaps Eriksson will see it one day; who knows, maybe, the next time Beckham is suspended.
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- Stephen Carter