Blowing forlornly into the gutter here in the morning breeze in the gritty Ruhr town of Gelsenkirchen, so far from the glory and the drama that will engulf Berlin as it stages the final of the 18th World Cup in a few days' time, is once again the question that haunts all those who care about English football.
It asks quite simply: will intelligence and courage ever again be applied to the shaping of our national game on the international stage? Will the lessons of Sven Goran Eriksson's disgraceful stewardship of England be properly learnt or, under his successor and right-hand man, Steve McClaren, will the old mythologies build again? Will we talk ourselves once more into the preposterous argument that we are in a position to beat the best of the world game? Here, despite the defiance displayed by England's 10 men after Wayne Rooney's natural brilliance was so terribly negated by that fundamental lack of discipline that in the past has been conspicuously ignored by the England coach, it is impossible to provide an encouraging answer.
Eriksson, a broken man but vastly richer than when he arrived as a symbol of knowledge and winning experience five and a half years ago, was not simply a beaten coach on Saturday night.
The charges against him were many and serious, but the greatest of all was that he was a disastrous example of all that follows too many easy choices, when investments are made in such myths that David Beckham was the man to put at the centre of the hopes for a "golden generation", and that you can keep changing your team, as you might your aftershave, and still expect coherence and rhythm and confidence when the big issues have to be settled.
Beckham spilt more tears yesterday when he announced that he was giving up the England captaincy, a decision which guaranteed him another burst of personal publicity at the end of his fifth major tournament - and how much of it would be tempered by the hard truth that in all of his appearances in three World Cups and two European Championships his influence and his impact have been negligible? Probably not much. He was applauded from the room in Baden-Baden despite the unassailable fact that the manner of his resignation summed up all that has been wrong with the Eriksson-Beckham regime.
The captaincy of England is a rare and precious gift and should be received and returned at the bidding of the man in charge - the coach of the team.
Zinedine Zidane was the man of 1998, Ronaldo of 2002, and this time it could be the great Frenchman again. And where has Beckham been? The most celebrated and rewarded player of his generation has never stirred, when it mattered, from the margins. He sobbed in the dug-out after being withdrawn from yet another match in which his captain's armband represented not a natural right of leadership but a privilege granted to him, and unchallenged, in all these years of numbing underachievement.
However, Eriksson, even as he neglected to find solutions to the enduring failure to exploit the talent of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, has always insisted that Beckham was the natural captain of England - and that he never once considered changing that assessment. There, maybe, we have the central problem of Sven Goran Eriksson, an intransigent ninny.
But if we are bound to catalogue the failures of Eriksson, the relentless decline in belief that he could supply any of the necessary answers to the problem of England's failure to begin to match the standards set by Sir Alf Ramsey 40 years ago, the blame cannot be completely isolated.
A coach, of course, creates the ethos of his team, but it may also be true that Eriksson perhaps believed that slavish loyalty to those players favoured, in the face of all evidence, would inevitably bring at least one dividend. Maybe if he told them they were indeed the golden generation often enough, they would first believe, then prove it. They believed it all right. Even after the final, sickening denouement, the tragicomic failure in the penalty shoot-out, Lampard was lambasting the media for its criticisms. It was an astonishing departure from reality.
This, unquestionably, was England's worst World Cup finals campaign since their first in 1950 - when they were ambushed by a team of American part-timers and amateurs. Portugal, though denuded of bite by the absence of their playmaker, Deco, had rarely looked like being breached before the dismissal of Rooney, and this was the first serious team England had faced. They were appalling against Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago, played one half decently and another catastrophically against Sweden, who were eaten up by Jürgen Klinsmann's Germany, and the victory over Ecuador was a triumph for the lesser of two inept teams.
Yet how could it be otherwise? Apart from chopping his men and his tactics from one match to another, he picked a squad which defied all logic, and in the selection of the untested Theo Walcott stepped on to ground which Pele, no less, described charitably as "unique". Yes, that was the word - unique. Uniquely misguided, uniquely uncaring for both his squad and the boy, uniquely indicative of a man not serious about his business.
If the "great generation" has once again been revealed as one made not of gold but clay - the likes of Lampard should not complain about such an assessment but simply reflect on their lack of achievement - it is possible only to weep for what might have been if the Football Association had taken the decision that would surely have presented itself as inevitable to any organisation of spirit and nerve after the failures of Japan four years ago and Portugal in 2004.
On both occasions the combination of Eriksson and McClaren was found to be utterly wanting. They had no tactical initiatives. They sat transfixed as Luiz Felipe Scolari guided Brazil and Portugal past them as though he had arrived at the traffic lights at precisely the moment they turned green.
It is reasonable to imagine that if the FA had acted on either of those occasions something of the "golden generation" could have been rescued.
Could we imagine for a second the confusions and meanderings of Eriksson happening under a Guus Hiddink or a Scolari, or the best of the rest of the shortlisted candidates, Martin O'Neill? Could we begin to believe for a second that the stupidity of a Walcott decision might occur, that England would have come here to Germany with a strike force of one player who had both full fitness and a modicum of experience? Would it have been possible that, confronted with the years-long evidence that Gerrard and Lampard simply did not have the natural instincts of true midfielders, any one of those serious candidates for the job would have allowed the situation to drift into the impotence that was displayed on Saturday?
A Hiddink would surely have recognised, as Rafa Benitez did at Liverpool, that Gerrard's remarkable talents did not sit easily in any conventional midfield format. It would have occurred to him, surely, that a solution would have been to play him alongside the right, where he has generated so much power and dynamic intervention for Liverpool, along with his freedom to move into striking positions from various points behind the front line. Beckham would, of course, have had to move. To where? Maybe a place in his life where he had to produce more than a daily forest of headlines.
Eriksson is gone now but then who takes his place? McClaren, the willing assistant or the reluctant ally in decisions which were plainly wrong? Take your pick. Certainly he was the man who was supposed to provide flair and intuition at Eriksson's shoulder. The evidence mounted here that his influence has been either too much or too little. Whatever the reality, it is hardly possible to imagine a man less endowed with the aura of someone who can easily bring in a new mood, a new sense of the possibilities of the future.
The image of England in defeat was tear-stained, but, as we might ask of Beckham, for whom was the crying? For the disappointed nation, for all those flag-waving, "football's coming home" optimists who believed they had a serious chance of competing with the big guns? Or the implosion of their own inflated belief in who they were and what they represented? Could it really be the surreal circus that surrounded their headquarters?
One Brazilian observer, though consumed by despair that his own team had failed to respond to the challenge of winning their sixth World Cup, offered a view painful to English sensibilities. He said: "We know England founded the game, but it it is amazing that every four years they seem to assume that they have a right to win the great trophy. But on what is it based? What have England done since they won at home in 1966? They simply have not been in the big league - they haven't even won a European Championship..."
Such realism surely needs to be applied at home, within and without the game. But then where is the encouragement? One of the runners to succeed Eriksson, Sam Allardyce, yesterday told the readers of the highest-selling Sunday newspaper in the land that the cause of England's demise here on Saturday was a cheating referee.
The mind - and the heart - recoils at such drivel. Rooney, who had carried so many hopes, who remains a young footballer of brilliant talent, stamped on Ricardo Carvalho in the region of his genitals - and inspired an Irish wit to remark that the real question had turned out to be not whether the problematic foot would stand up to a tackle, but whether Carvalho's "tackle" would stand up to Rooney's foot - and anyone who had thought such a flashpoint was not possible had been living deep in the Eriksson land of myth and legend.
Not so long ago in the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Rooney lost control of himself in a friendly against Spain and was withdrawn by Eriksson, wisely in that it was clear the referee was on the point of showing a red card. But then later he said, no, there was no long-term problem. Rooney would not be taught a lesson, not dropped for a game or two, as an indicator that merely being a superbly promising talent was enough to guarantee your place in international football. As we saw so devastatingly here at the week, chickens do have that bothersome habit of coming home to roost.
Of course, Cristiano Ronaldo, who showed some of the less appealing aspects of his nature while performing formidably on the field, and dispatching England with a confidence and authority quite beyond Gerrard and Lampard, is the available scapegoat. Alan Shearer, who is being lined up as a McClaren assistant, and perhaps a man with the prestige to defuse future criticisms of the England operation, suggested that Rooney was entitled to chastise his Manchester United team-mate forcibly when they next meet at the training ground. How easy, how convenient, to forget that it was Rooney who caused his own downfall - and betrayed his team.
But then, also, how typical of the English football psyche, one which has been so easily lulled by the platitudes and the inaction and the sheer futility of the Eriksson years. Yes, he qualified for major tournaments, but who did he beat, what force did he topple, except Germany on that beguiling, deceiving night in Munich nearly five years ago? That he succeeded where Kevin Keegan was plainly failing and Graham Taylor had fallen eight years earlier when the challenge was against Dennis Bergkamp's Netherlands, was an achievement hugely inflated when you considered Eriksson's reputation and rewards - and the level of opposition he faced. In Munich it did seem that the church bells were ringing for the dawn of a new age of English football, but again it was a myth. England struggled desperately in their next game, against Albania, while Germany began to rebuild, all the way to the World Cup final less than a year later.
Once more Germany march on a World Cup, once more their team play with a strength and a conviction well beyond the sum of their individual talents.
Once more England fall well below the mountain top - and yet again England pile up the excuses. But they do not wash; they are beyond the blurring effect of Beckham's self-regarding tears. The truth is indeed blowing along the gutter here. What happened, give or take some passing heroics, is what England deserved. They simply didn't come up to scratch, and they never will until they are given a little leadership - and some basic truth.
Swede's smell of success - and failure
* ENGLAND HIGHS
Sept 2001: Thrash Germany 5-1 in Munich, rescuing qualification for the 2002 World Cup finals.
June 2002: Beat Argentina 1-0 in World Cup in Sapporo.
Apr/Oct 2003: Beat Turkey 2-0 in Euro 2004 qualifier, then draw 0-0 to reach finals in Portugal.
Oct 2005: Secure qualification for the 2006 World Cup.
Nov 2005: Two Michael Owen goals in three minutes snatch 3-2 friendly victory over Argentina.
* ENGLAND LOWS
June 2002: Knocked out by Brazil in World Cup quarter-finals.
June 2004: Eliminated from Euro 2004 quarter-finals on penalties by hosts Portugal.
Sept 2005: Shock 1-0 defeat by Northern Ireland in World Cup qualifier.
July 2006: Knocked out of World Cup quarter-finals by Portugal on penalties.
* RECORD IN FULL
In competitive matches
P W D L F A
38 26 9 3 69 26
P W D L F A
67 40 17 10 128 61
* IN HIS LOCKER
Apr 2002: Affair revealed with TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson.
March 2004: Pictured attending meeting with Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon.
July 2004: Exposed for affair with secretary Faria Alam at Football Association. Eriksson has "no case to answer", says FA.
Jan 2006: Exposed by the News of the World's "fake sheikh". Admitted could leave England after the World Cup, criticised senior players and made claims of corruption at Premier League clubs. FA says contract will not be renewed.
* WHAT NOW FOR SVEN?
Real Madrid: Possible destination, depending on outcome of club's presidential election.
Internazionale: Another failure to win the scudetto may result in Roberto Mancini's sacking.
South Africa: A lack of funds could scupper this idea, but the 2010 World Cup hosts want a big name to lead them.
Aston Villa/Newcastle: Neither is available, yet, but a few poor results into the new season and Eriksson's name will be linked.Reuse content