Nick Townsend At Germany 2006: Sven's burden: at first sight of Rooney rivals will be told to 'put the boot in'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Saudi Arabia's players, we are told, have been praying "for more power". They have signs in their hotel bedrooms pointing towards Mecca. Japan's representatives will doubtless be guided by their Shinto gods. Across the nations, Catholic players will have been crossing themselves in readiness for the trials ahead.

Sven Goran Eriksson, it seems, has his own faith. He trusts in instinct. It resulted in the inclusion of an untested 17-year-old, Theo Walcott, in his final England squad. Seemingly, when it comes to evaluating a 20-year-old's condition he is prepared to rely on the same force and eschew medical science. "The last say in this story is [Wayne] Rooney's, and mine," was one of his declarations on Thursday.

If it is, God forbid. The last thing anyone needs is Sven and the Art of Metatarsal Maintenance. Perhaps because Heidel-berg, where several of us correspondents are holed up, is a St George Cross-free refuge and, even more mercifully, a Rooney-neutral zone, some of Dr Eriksson's observations appeared even more preposterous than they may have seemed back home.

In this sedate, environment-friendly university town, the World Cup could easily pass you by. Yet even here there is no complete escape from the R-word. An earnest young ticket clerk at the railway station where I was attempting to book a ticket to get to yesterday's match stared at me quizzically, and said: "I haf one question to ask you. How fit is Rooney?" His real concern, of course, is that the Manchester United striker may be ready to face the hosts in a possible second-round game.

I swear the world is being taken over. Fall asleep and you will awake having succumbed to Rooney-fixation. Much of the responsibility for that lies with Eriksson, who failed to distinguish himself in his Thursday pronouncements, specif-ically with the implication that the iconic figure could be involved in the games against Trinidad & Tobago on Thursday or Sweden on Tuesday week.

It may have appealed to those grandstanding individuals responsible for the news pages of England's most popular newspaper, which gloried in the image of a verbal fisticuffs between Eriksson and Sir Alex Ferguson, the Swede outscoring his rival on points. In reality it was less about the entirely justifiable concerns of those from the Theatre of Dreams, more about the Theatre of the Absurd, in which the Football Association have been anything but guiltless bystanders.

All discussions on this should have been wrested from Eriksson from the start by the FA. All the coach needed to declare was that Rooney would be considered by him when the FA's medical advisers, in conjunction with their counterparts Old Trafford, judged he was fit enough, instead of this ridiculous posturing, which doesn't suit a man who is as effective at playing the heavy as Graham Norton.

When the coach pronounces: "The good news is that Rooney has no more injury. He is injury-free", he is being disingenuous. United contend that the injury is only "substantially healed" and (my italics) "is potentially still at risk". The Swede has unnec-essarily raised the temperature in the hell's kitchen of club-nation relationships, and with threats of litigation should further mishap befall Rooney, England look to have been ill-served by Eriksson's contribution.

Even if Rooney is "injury-free" in strictly medical terms, can there be anything more ruinous to England's cause than a player lacking condition and with a perceived weakness?

Rooney needs protecting from himself - and from opponents with absolutely no regard for his welfare. As one former England defender put it to me, without any hesitation: "The first thing I'd do is stamp on his foot."

As the United director Sir Bobby Charlton argues: "I don't think Wayne is the person to ask [about his match-readiness], you would have to ask the medical staff." And by implication, neither do you ask Eriksson.

The whole affair evokes an ominous sense of déjà vu, and it's worth borrowing the first line from the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young classic of that title: "If I had ever been here before I would probably know just what to do."

Yet Eriksson has been here before. In Japan and South Korea, with a captain who, although the coach now offers a lame rationale - "I didn't have an Aaron Lennon then" - should not have participated. One suspects the same is true of Rooney.

One can also cite Bryan Robson, who travelled to Mexico in 1986 despite being prone to shoulder problems. "If I'd had any doubts I would have pulled out," Robson says 20 years on. In his second game, it was his shoulder that was "pulled out", by a Moroccan.

In Robson's view, Rooney should have travelled only if he had recuperated fully. "I think he could be a distraction for the other players," he says. And that should not be ignored. All Eriksson's 23 crave success for England, but in truth they primarily demand it for themselves at this, the pinnacle of their careers. Steven Gerrard warns: "You can't throw a player into a World Cup game who is not match-fit."

You suspect ultimately that the Swede's natural sang-froid will dominate and that he will exercise caution, and not merely for fear of a further contretemps with Ferguson, simply because a crocked, or less than fully functional, Rooney will not serve England best.

The chorus should be reverberating in Eriksson's head: "We have all been here before..."

Why Klinsmann is more relieved than euphoric

Nothing like stereotyping, is there, and the Germans appeared to relish their popular image in an opening ceremony which was thankfully brief. A veritable S & M fantasy it was, with leder-hosen, cowbells, goatherds, thigh-slapping and whip-wielding, before Claudia Schiffer and Pele - beauty and the beauty, if you like - appeared with the World Cup trophy.

By the end of the night we had sufficient goals, eight in two games, to confound those prophets of doom who had forecast a low-scoring finals. Already there is evidence of "simulation" being ignored by officials, despite threats of draconian action from Fifa. Oh, and an early stand-off between taunting England and Germany supporters in Frankfurt.

The hosts brought the real show to life with four goals, a rarity in the opening gambit of a finals; Torsten Frings' 30-yarder, an appropriate closing signature to Germany's opening document of intent in these finals, was something special. We should ignore the fact that the latest attempt at ball technology has produced an object with idiosyncratic swerves which will be relished by free-kick practitioners everywhere, but feared by anyone whose expertise lies in controlling the thing.

Germany's Michael Ballack-less victory must be placed in the context that their opponents, Costa Rica, have never appeared likely to trouble the second-round organisers. Germany's coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, who appeared more relieved than euphoric afterwards, will be concerned about the manner in which Paulo Wanchope, late of Derby County, West Ham and Manchester City, eased his way through a ponderous and desperately square back four on two occasions.

But Klinsmann's men are on their way, though this performance was sufficient for us to contend, at least until they face further examination, that, yes, we are entitled to underestimate the Germans.

Comments