The Last Word: Myths exposed as Fabio looks like novice he is
Great club manager but letting players have a beer completes transformation from Capone to Keegan
Sunday 27 June 2010
Germany, penalties, pizza adverts. You could say England's three steps to hell are well worn. You could also say that the "let's right all those wrongs" attitude which is driving a united nation into today's second-round showdown is even more threadbare. Yes, you could say it. But you probably won't.
Because the problem with a World Cup meeting with the old enemy is that the hype and the jingo is just too juicy to resist. While such intelligent England professionals as David James – in fact, only David James – tries his damnedest to write it off as "just another game against just another team", the injustice and bitterness of past encounters looms over the present like ghosts on a battlefield.
Scandalously, crassly, it seems permissible to evoke the references to war. So English pubs will rock to the spirit of the blitz this afternoon. No, they shall not be moved. Until, that is, the last penalty has been missed and its time to hit the High Street to overturn a few BMWs.
Of course, the overwhelming majority know this is all bunkum, all so irrelevant to a match which will pit two average sides against each other to decide who shall have the honour of losing to Argentina in the quarter-final. But then, the myth of this "die now or later" contest seems so aptly placed at the crux of a campaign which has been constructed by falsehood. The first was the genius of Fabio Capello. How utterly surreal that image now seems.
Capello has been confirmed as a great club manager; nothing more and certainly nothing less. But what he never possessed when the FA came calling with their £6m, or whatever grotesque sum, per annum, were the entries on a CV to inspire such wild claims to international immortality.
It was long overlooked but then it dawned on everyone. This has been the first time Capello has led a team into a World Cup, the first time he has been holed up with a squad of 23 for those many hours which form those many days which form those many weeks. To be frank, the Italian has looked the novice he is in this regard.
While mistakes have been made in selection and in tactics, perhaps the graver errors have been made in man-management. He believed he had the hardman act to whip these pampered young multi-millionaires into line. He didn't. In the end he has been forced to adopt the old "go on, have a beer, relax" philosophy which every England manager since the unique overlord who was Sir Alf Ramsey has eventually felt obliged to follow. And in this metamorphosis from Al Capone into Kevin Keegan, Capello inevitably misplaced a few of his values. He, too, became caught up in the desperation for one result, any bloody result and took his eye off the ball. There they were playing a Slovenian team for whom "limited" would be the grossest of compliments and he was punching the air as his boys kept the ball in the corner to secure the 1-0 win.
Shouldn't this most calm, most dispassionate of leaders have had his focus on the bigger picture which said that another goal would have delivered a path to the semi-final promising "Ghana, Uruguay" and not "Germany, Argentina"? Shouldn't this most decorated of leaders have insisted his side take rather higher aim than beating a country of two million with all the style of a Chesterfield Cup run? The fear of failure invariably leads to the shortfall in ambition and Capello should have made his men realise this. Maybe he tried to, although his reaction at the whistle signified that he was as euphoric as anyone with what should have been the bare minimum. In truth, commitment is the very least the England fans should receive but even in the supposed resurrection of their beloved they were given nothing more.
It will not be enough in Bloemfontein this afternoon, unless Germany are themselves stricken by the alarming mediocrity inflicting European football. So where to look to for the quality, for the switch to finally set the English light ablaze? Why, to Wayne Rooney, of course. And so another myth consumes the Three Lions.
The perceived wisdom is that unless Rooney is operating at his best then England have absolutely no chance in this tournament. Fair enough. But for that to happen involves so much more than Wazza suddenly locating his scoring boots. It's the most common misconception in World Cup folklore: one player's brilliance carrying home the trophy to a worshipping nation. Maybe it happened to some extent in 1986 with Diego Maradona; veteran observers maintain it so almost did in 1954 with Ferenc Puskas. But it hasn't come to pass since the Hand of God and in the modern game with its claustrophobic defensive patterns it probably never will again. Alas, that will not stop the revisionists penning their one-man success stories and enthusing those such as Rooney to believe they really do possess the world at their feet – and only their feet.
The classic example of this rewriting of recent World Cup history is Zinedine Zidane. In the temptation to credit the great midfielder with the brunt of France's 1998 glory, the nostalgia junkies conveniently forget that he missed a group match and the first knockout match because of a typically hot-headed red card and that he was anything but the man of the match in the quarters and semis. They pin on the badge of immortality purely based on his contribution in the final. Granted, Zidane's majesty that famous Paris night should not be understated. But the overstatement of his powers throughout those finals is just as absurd and when it comes to the demands for emulation, is even more ridiculous.
England will not triumph solely because of Rooney proving he's a once-in-a-lifetimer or because of Capello's track record. They would do so because they have played like a team. Not simply displaying the spirit of a team – chucking themselves in the way of pile-drivers in the name of the cause – but playing like a team. The passing, the movement, the staying, the going, the linking, the faking, the giving, the taking... all those attributes which will ultimately define the champions.
Are England technically proficient enough to pull it off? That should be the only concern going in today. It should be. But as ever it gets clouded in all the nonsense and all the drivel which ignores the fact that England have not beaten a major powerhouse in the knockout stages since 1966. That's 44 years. Of hurt. Or whatever it is that they say.
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