England must come out fighting or wave the white flag
Here in Port Elizabeth on the eve of a game that could ravage the English national team for a generation, Capello's mantra sounded less of a diagnosis than a provocation to his players. If they hide again, a terrible darkness will descend.sports Updated: Jun 23, 2010 17:04 IST
The more he says it the louder the siren inside. "Spirit". Fabio Capello picks out courage and endeavour as England's missing virtues. Here in Port Elizabeth on the eve of a game that could ravage the English national team for a generation Capello's mantra sounded less of a diagnosis than a provocation to his players. If they hide again, a terrible darkness will descend.
After 20 years of inflation and expansion in the English game a World Cup survival exercise comes down to an advertiser's slogan: an abstraction of the heart that plays a role but cannot win tournaments by itself. Spirit was not Capello's only call to arms. He wanted this England team to "press more, run more". This is kindergarten stuff. It is basic game-vocabulary.
But it's where England are against Slovenia: right at the start-again moment, in every sense, because if they send their ghosts to a stadium for the third time in 10 days instead of the selves who regularly win big Champions League contests then there will be a collapse of faith that may never be repaired.
A campaign that started against the world's most powerful nation could reach a swift nadir against the smallest country at this World Cup. England brace themselves for more than another festival of grumbling. To go out at the group stage for the first time in 52 years after games against the USA, Algeria and Slovenia wouldrequirean unconditional surrenderto reality.
That truth needs to be accepted before the possibility of an England win can be embraced. Logic still says that if the side who performed so vibrantly at times in qualifying reappear in the Eastern Cape then calamity will be averted and Capello's men will earn a place in the second-round in Rustenburg on Saturday or Bloemfontein a day later. To many England fans here it feels like a vigil at the mouth of a cave. Are they in there? Will they come out?
By tomorrow morning the Football Association could be hoping Capello goes quietly without them having to find 12m to pay him off. The BBC have reported all week that a senior FA source told them the country's second foreign manager would be expected to resign. Before any contract wrangle started most people in the English game would consider his position untenable anyway. At least Sven-Goran Eriksson took them to two quarter-finals. If these players are limp again, it will express a terminal rift with their leader, who many of them prefer in small doses rather than the 35 days they have spent with him already.
Aloof, dictatorial and poorly taught in (the sometimes madcap) English culture, Capello has imposed severe austerity on this squad at an isolated and ennui-inducing base, The public may cry that professional footballers called to win a World Cup should not be whining about boredom or a lack of joie de vivre in the camp, but the problems multiply when a manager who is a poor communicator in the team's native tongue hands every verdict down on tablets of stone and banishes dialogue.
So Gerrard and his players face a stark choice: to let the train continue on its path to oblivion or to intervene tonight, out of sheer professional pride, regardless of their feelings for each other or their manager. Ever so 'umble after his failed attempt to air some of these frustrations, John Terry has exposed tensions that could be purged against a country who were 250-1 to win this World Cup or may form their own fat chapter in a review of another English misadventure.
The inquest would take in the FA's subservience and haste in allowing Capello to tighten-up his contract before the tournament had even kicked-off, the shortage of Under-25s pushing through (this is England's all-time oldest World Cup squad), the Wembley pitch debacle, the 2018 World Cup bid slip-ups and the paucity of English candidates for Capello's job.
Everything, really, because the elastic patience of the Wembley hardcore would not stretch to assimilate the first group-stage exit since 1958, when England were weakened by the Munich air disaster.
"Any national team knows it is an honour to play England and it's no different for us. After all, football was invented there," says Slovenia's coach, Matjaz Kek. This deference could sound seriously misplaced unless an expected strike partnership of Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe and more liveliness from Gerrard and Frank Lampard cure their team's malaise. In England's next game after the first-round play-off defeat to USSR in 1958, Bobby Charlton stepped into the team to face Northern Ireland in Belfast. There is no Bobby C banging on the door of Capello's team.
In a region where 4,000 British settlers landed in 1820 to double the English-speaking population of South Africa, a squad decked out in superb retro Alf Ramsey tracksuits could be pushed into the sea and not seen again. Several of these players would post their international retirements and make a dash for the sanctuary of their clubs. They would leave no trace in World Cup history.