The opposite of playing well is playing badly and the opposite of cheering is booing. This is a simple pair of contrasts which in pay-to-watch sport have always been inextricably linked. Yes, simple. But for some reason beyond the comprehension of certain England footballers.
Or then, perhaps Wayne Rooney was merely masking his own frustrations in lashing out at the national team's fans as he left the pitch on Friday in Cape Town. But if he genuinely was deflecting his anger, that only made his snide "Isn't it nice when your fans boo you?" remark directly to the camera more reprehensible.
Forget for a second the rank PR stupidity of a young millionaire criticising normal people who have shed thousands of their ever-more hard-earned to travel to South Africa and, while you're at it, forget the rank sporting stupidity of a player further alienating the support on which his team will rely to help drag them out of their World Cup hole. And just for a moment consider the logic at the heart of Rooney's retort. It is as confused as England's gameplan and almost as easy to break down.
"I've never seen a side who've performed better because they've been booed," – or so goes the argument of those who believe supporters should only "support". What utter, utter nonsense. Players love the hero worship, the same as they detest the villain vilification. It's a big part of what drives them on. Take away the adulation and you take away a certain measure of a superstar's life-force. Booing will – or, in any case, should – make them perform at a higher level. Because they never want to think of their anointed selves as being anything less than superior again. In fact, booing is the most advisable course of action a fan can take, because it is the only non-violent and immediate method of letting the team know they are not meeting the expectations. And in terms of England 2010, the fans have every right to express this displeasure because these expectations have been set not by them – and by that clichéd "44 years of hurt" baloney that is routinely trotted out – but by the players and by the management.
It is Fabio Capello who accepted a £6m-a-year salary while announcing it would be a failure if England do not reach the final. It is Rooney who came out with similar tripe while being paid his own Three Lions ransom to appear in commercials which still suggest he is on the brink of immortalising glory. Essentially this myth – if it does prove to be so – has been created from within and, OK, by the media. The latter should not escape criticism for erecting this England set-up in fragile structures many storeys above their station.
Nothing much has changed in the past four to 20 years. England have suffered disasters in group stages before. They have survived a few, just as they may or may not against Slovenia on Wednesday. But through all the recrimination, all the self-flagellation, went the illusion that the answer was just around the corner. And every time the solution would all so miraculously and all so conveniently be discovered in a genius manager who would at last be able to gel together all that talent, which regardless of its dubious quality will forever remain "undoubted".
So the FA came upon Capello, just like they came upon Eriksson, just like they came upon Robson, Taylor, Hoddle, Keegan. Regardless how long the façade was to last, the storyline was essentially the same: the man with the plan would sort it out. This time it would be different. Except it wasn't and it isn't. You don't suddenly right all the wrongs and fix the mediocrity by banning mobile phones or excluding the WAGS. Capello was depicted as the Godfather who would take no messing. Well, here we are, a year or three and about £15m on, and Rooney is so desperate that he appears to be casting a portion of the blame on to a few hundred bystanders pursing their mouth and making low-pitched tones.
Now how is that for messing about, for allowing nothing more serious than a distraction to impinge on the professional? Rooney's outburst was as irrelevant as Capello's tough-guy image. It throws a smokescreen over the real faults at hand.
Obviously Capello has not become a bad manager in two games, just as he did not become the best manager of all time in what now can be viewed as a thoroughly misleading qualifying campaign. An over-the-hill Croatia and a never-been-up-the-hill Ukraine stood in their path and, in truth, England's progress was no more than it should have been. In fact, it was a great deal less, as they plainly developed no lasting shape and no lasting conviction. In short, they still have the propensity to dissolve into the same shambles which characterised Steve McClaren's reign.
The question now must be: why? "The pressure of the World Cup," seemed to be Capello's main explanation. That is the Mambo Italiano of all cop-outs. Pressure is what it's all about, it's what every team with any ambition in South Africa are feeling. To say your own squad feels it any more than any other is to say your own squad has not been well-enough prepared.
Yet Capello should not take all the flak – or even the majority of it – should England's World Cup carry on grimacing itself into the shape of a pear. There are far deeper problems at root and they are the problems always quoted in each and every inquest but then just as always forgotten in the clamour to hail the latest Great Redeemer. Even the most recently initiated can spot that England struggle to pass and keep hold of the ball. And so that old chestnut of the fastest and most expedient league in the world ensuring no technical improvement continues to wither on the pyre.
What English football must do is to stop and take a long hard look at itself and not at the headhunters' circular entitled "Saviours For Hire". Perhaps it would be better if Capello's mob are gunned down prematurely in midweek because the resulting shock and disaffection may force a proper and sustained check on reality.
But then, they could always revert to insulting the fans and pointing the finger at them for raising the expectation, which raises the pressure, which creates impossible burdens. Change the record. And, go ahead, sound up those "Great Escape" trumpets. Isn't that the next act in this tired old farce?
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