ENGLAND: FIFA RANKING 8, ODDS TO WIN 13/2
I plotted out England's World Cup progress on the back of my South African Airways sickbag on the flight to Johannesburg. Somehow, the sickbag seemed appropriate. Sorry to report that by my reckoning the team will be eliminated by Brazil in the semi-finals, but I do have them down to beat Argentina in the most hotly contested third- and fourth-place play-off the tournament has ever seen.
Here we go again. This will be only my third World Cup finals as a reporter and when I looked around the departure lounge on Wednesday evening, there were a few more experienced heads in the queue who had seen much more and much worse. They could remember 1994, 1978 and 1974 when England were not there at all. This has, at the very least, been an improvement on Euro 2008.
Realistically, the semi-finals would be a great achievement for England which, if you recall the now-departed Lord Triesman's blueprint for English football, was the benchmark the Football Association now demands from its senior team at major tournaments. Of course, as June arrives in a World Cup year, you are not supposed to say that. It sounds absurd. Why else does an established football nation go to a tournament except to win it?
The Fifa rankings tell us England are a top-eight football nation so a top-four place would be over-achieving even if a defeat in the semi-final would feel at the time like a disaster. The funny thing is that a semi-final would revive memories of 1990 and would in all likelihood stir the debate as to whether England deserved an open-top bus parade (which they got 20 years ago). Lose in the quarter-finals again and public opinion will dictate they will be forced to slip out of Heathrow in disguise.
Just a small point, but Italy went 44 years from their second World Cup triumph in 1938 (when the tournament was nothing like the global epic it is now) to their third in 1982. Forty-four years happens to be exactly the same period of time since England last won it. That is not to suggest they will break the curse this time, but it demonstrates that big football nations, and Italy is a big one, can go for a long time without winning the World Cup.
Fabio Capello's squad is one of the oldest at the tournament. There are five players in the squad with more than 50 caps. Steven Gerrard (80), Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole (both 78) have enormous experience. Wayne Rooney and John Terry (both 60) too. Even Emile Heskey has 58. Joe Cole has 54.
Four of these players are at their third World Cup finals. In the past two tournaments there has been a touch of naivety about England, the innocence of the novice tourist, but not this time. Compare them to their equivalents in terms of age in another old squad, Italy, and aside from Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluigi Buffon they have played many more international games.
There are scores of details you could debate for ages but the key element in England's favour is the cool weather in winter-time South Africa. The heat at pitch-level was punishing in Germany in 2006, never more than in the first game against Paraguay in Frankfurt where you could see the players slowing down as the game went on. The same went for the Shizuoka defeat to Brazil four years earlier.
And the disadvantages? The lack of a stand-out goalkeeper is obviously a problem. So too the goals which have a habit of drying up. I have had a wager on Peter Crouch to be the tournament's top scorer (66-1, a very decent price) because I think Capello is leaning towards starting with him and if he does not it will only be a matter of time before the Heskey spell evaporates. That header he missed late in the Japan game was classic Heskey.
The Capello regime has had all sorts of garlands for its hardline stance on everything from chocolate bars in the hotel minibar; to Heskey's unsanctioned texting; to infidelity with thy team-mate's ex-fiancée, but even Capello knows that the players are pretty mature on international duty. When you encounter them around the England camp they are a very low-key bunch, all desperate to do well and make a good impression, regardless of what scrapes they might get themselves in the rest of the time.
As for the coach himself, at last he has his players to himself. The bootcamp atmosphere is what Italian coaches do best. In Italian football, club sides spend days and days away together in hotels before games; after games; warm-ups; warm-downs. You name it. This World Cup scenario is the one that Capello has spent the last 40 years of his professional life in as player and coach, and he has thrived in it.
A World Cup requires quick decisions. It is not like a league season when a manager can give a player three games to regain his form before he has to make a tough call. It has to be done quickly in a tournament, game-to-game and Capello, as demonstrated by his call on Theo Walcott, can do that. The players? Rooney is fit; Gerrard is fit; Jamie Carragher is back and even Ledley King is playing more than a game a week. If it weren't for Rio Ferdinand being ruled out, it would be all that we could ask for.
If it is to be the semi-finals this year then I will still come back from South Africa full of optimism. The best result of the year so far was England Under-17s winning the European Championship last month. That team could provide three future internationals at least. I recall Danny Rose's goal for Spurs against Arsenal at White Hart Lane. He is one for the future. As is Victor Moses.
What I am trying to say, in case of extreme disappointment over the next six weeks, is there is always next time.
The likely starting XI
David James (Portsmouth) His third World Cup, but still to start. At 39, his time seems to have come at last
Ashley Cole (Chelsea) Fit, fresh and in the sort of form that justifies his standing as one of the world's best left-backs
John Terry (Chelsea) Led his club to the Double but doubts over his own form remain in the wake of a turbulent season
Ledley King (Tottenham) Set to be promoted to starting XI after Ferdinand's late withdrawal. Good season but his fitness is always a concern
Glen Johnson (Liverpool) Looks good going forward – less so when forced to turn to the bread-and-butter defensive duties
Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) Needs to put his club concerns out of his mind and produce the dynamism of which he is capable
Gareth Barry (Manchester City) A favourite of Capello, but will he be fit? Touch and go if he will be for the opener against the US
Frank Lampard (Chelsea) Provides goals and direction from the heart of the side. If Barry's out, he may have to play alongside Gerrard in the middle again
Aaron Lennon (Tottenham) Fresh after his four-month injury lay off. Preferred to Walcott out wide, but yet to score in 17 games for England
Wayne Rooney (Man United) In the form of his life for United and the key man for Capello. Only 24 but already has 60 caps (and 25 goals) to his name
Peter Crouch (Tottenham) Set to edge out Heskey up front – deservedly so with three times as many goals in 20 fewer games than the Villa man
On the bench
Robert Green (West Ham) May yet snatch the gloves from James
Joe Hart (Manchester City) There to look and learn – barring injury
Jamie Carragher (Liverpool) Provides experienced cover for the backline – will be needed more than ever now
Michael Dawson (Tottenham) Called into squad at last minute following Ferdinand's injury
Matthew Upson (West Ham) Unconvincing club campaign but squad regular
Stephen Warnock (Aston Villa) Has one cap and unlikely to add to that in South Africa
Michael Carrick (Manchester United) Out of sorts for United - facing time on the bench
James Milner (Aston Villa) Versatility will ensure he features at some stage
Shaun Wright-Phillips (Manchester City) Sits on the bench for City – and will do the same for England
Joe Cole (Chelsea) Left it late to earn his place, may start if Barry's unfit
Jermain Defoe (Tottenham) Doubt remains over his ability at highest level
Emile Heskey (Aston Villa) A favourite of Capello despite a modest goalscoring record, could still edge out Crouch
THE ROAD TO GLORY?
Game 1 USA, group stage, 12 June, Rustenburg, 7.30pm, ITV1
Those with long memories say remember 1950 and Belo Horizonte. Those without say if England can't find a way past the US they should head over the horizon.
Game 2 – Algeria, group stage, 18 June, Cape Town, 7.30pm, ITV1
Should surely be six points out of six and a place in the second round against the Algerians' erratic defence.
Game 3 – Slovenia, group stage, 23 June, Port Elizabeth, 3pm, BBC1
A third win out of three against the smallest nation in the competition whose best known player is Robert Koren, just released by West Brom.
Game 4 – Serbia/Ghana, round of 16, 26 June, Rustenburg, 7.30pm, BBC1
If England top Group C – and if they don't it will mean a likely meeting with Germany – a winnable second-round tie with Serbia (probable) or an injury-weakened Ghana (possible) awaits.
Game 5 – France, quarter-final, 2 July, Johannesburg, 7.30pm, BBC1
Now it starts to get tricky as England face (if it goes to plan) three increasingly tough games in nine days. France have a comfortable-looking passage to the last eight to set up a first competitive meeting with England since Euro 2004.
Game 6 – Brazil/ Netherlands, semi-final, 6 July, Cape Town, 7.30pm, BBC1/ITV1
The potential last-eight meeting between the Dutch and Brazilians has the makings of one of the games of the tournament. England have never beaten Brazil in the World Cup.
Game 7 – Spain, final, 11 July, Johannesburg, 7.30pm, BBC1/ITV1
The European champions, with their silken midfield and lethal strikeforce, are the team to beat. Have heart though history is against them – they have never gone beyond the last eight in 18 attempts.Reuse content