John Carlin: National honour demands a swift end to England misery

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Look. It is not inconceivable that England could win the World Cup. If Greece can beat Portugal in the final of Euro 2004, in Lisbon, then there is at least a chance that England might turn form on its head - and class, and style, and skill, and courage - and beat Portugal this weekend. Whereupon Beckham and Co would be only two games away from a trophy that no one in the world believes they remotely deserve.

The best thing for England would be to lose on Saturday. For the good of the game. That is to say, for the good of the best thing England ever did for the species, invent the sport of football and transport it to every corner of the planet.

Because the last thing you want is to stay on to the semi-finals and draw the world's attention to just how badly, and - more to the point - how meekly, England play football these days. If this England were to go ahead and win the World Cup, the world would never forgive us. A century or more of global esteem would go down the plughole.

The affection and respect the English game commands would be lost for ever. For the image that would become engraved around the world would be of an England that is the mirror image of Sven Goran Eriksson: dull, unimaginative, confused and - above all - timid.

My point, and I suppose not all that many people in England have had the opportunity to grasp this, is that their nation is viewed with tremendous regard in the footballing world. I travel a lot for my day job and, whether I am out reporting on grotesque human rights abuses in Rwanda or electoral fraud in Mexico, always, without fail, the subject of football comes up. And always, without fail, someone says something warm and complimentary about English football.

I used to remonstrate, but in recent years I've stopped. Because it's no use. People everywhere have an idea ingrained in their heads. It is that English football is fast, brave, strong, cavalier, honest. It is not the prettiest to watch, but it embodies things about the spirit of the game that are even more elemental to its health than silky ball control or the nifty one-two. It is as if England had been accorded the status of keeper of the flame, defender of the faith.

This might sound like madness to some English fans, accustomed as they have become over the last 30 years or so to view their game as lamentably agricultural compared to much of what they see in South America or the Continent. Yet this very description I am giving of the English football stereotype is something I have come across even among Argentines, who at another level hate us more than most. And I have found this reverence for the English game where I now live, in Spain, whose league is without doubt the most attractive to watch in the world.

And yet, right now, this mighty monument is in danger of crumbling. The process began during the last World Cup, especially in the defeat to Brazil. I was there, and the most shocking thing was the limp manner of the exit. Nothing wrong with losing to Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. But you go down fighting, for God's sake. The way England did in 1970 against the greatest Brazil ever. Honour: that's maybe the key word foreigners associate with the English game - honour, in defeat as in victory. There was no honour in that loss to Brazil in 2002. There has been even less in the four fiascos we have had the misfortune to witness in Germany.

I mean, bringing on a defender for an attacker, Jamie Carragher for Joe Cole, with 15 minutes to go to preserve a 1-0 lead against Ecuador. Ecuador! A nation none of whose players has made any impact, nor will they, on the big European leagues. To be so spectacularly craven in the face of a rival so small is a betrayal of what England stands for, of the ideal people are struggling so hard to cling to these days.

Less bad, though bad enough, was to have been outplayed for large portions of the game by the likes of Reasco, Mendez and Espinoza. Some people in England blame the players. Frank Lampard, for example, was shocking against Ecuador. But it's not Lampard's fault. The truly amazing thing is how a player so good, a player whose all-round talents have made Chelsea the envy of Europe's biggest clubs these last two seasons, has been reduced to such mediocrity upon putting on the England shirt.

More predictably, of course, people blame David Beckham. Yes, he has not been much good either. But let me tell you what every season-ticket holder at the Bernabeu these last three years will tell you: that Beckham has been seen in Spain as the incarnation of precisely those cliché qualities the world chooses to see in the English game of bravery, spirit and honest endeavour; that for these very reasons he is held in higher esteem (the polls show it) than Ronaldo or Roberto Carlos or three-quarters of the Real Madrid team.

No, all roads lead to Sven. Or does anybody doubt that the finest collection of England players in 40 years would be making a far better exhibition of themselves in the event that, say, Rafael Benitez were in charge? No one has ever accused Rafa of being a practitioner of the jogo bonito. But he understands the honourable essence of the English game. Put players of the quality of John Terry, Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Beckham, Wayne Rooney and the two Coles under Benitez's charge (or Mourinho's, or Scolari's, or Hiddink's) and does anyone harbour the slightest doubt that they would be playing more organised, more flowing, and, above all, more passionate football? Is there any doubt at all?

Of course not. It is because of Eriksson that it would be good if Portugal were to put his team out of their misery on Saturday. Good for the English game, establishing as it would once and for all how England must not play. But for now, all England have done is be crowned world champions of disappointment. So let's get this over with now, comforted by the thought that things cannot get much worse; that after Sven the only way to go is up.

John Carlin has been a foreign correspondent in South America, South Africa and Washington, among other places

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