England, oh England…

The Three Lions

Where does an England fan start with this emotionally abusive team?  England have consistently had an excellent squad since 2002, and have always aroused high expectations, and have always disappointed.  In 2008, they did not even qualify to the European Championships.

The all-too-predictable story continues to repeat itself.  England’s best players over these years—Gerrard, Lampard, Shearer, Beckham, Terry, Ferdinand, Owen, Ashley Cole, Rooney, and others—consistently perform excellently with some of the best club teams in the world, where they win European trophies regularly.  They play together for England a lot, and one expects them to have the time to gel into a decent team. The build-up to each major tournament is feverish.   The notorious English press revels in its insanely bipolar relationship with the team: at one moment glorifying them beyond recognition, before switching to undercover stings and relentless vilification the moment anything goes wrong.  And the players themselves spend the weeks leading up to the tournament reading some inspired lines from their PR agents about how they want to win so badly and how much it means to them.

But then the tournament starts, and the come-down is devastating.  The team can’t seem to put three passes together; the players seem uninterested; their ankles, knees and metatarsals start snapping like twigs in a dry forest. They lumber through the group stages unconvincingly and are eliminated by the first decent team they meet, after a thoroughly embarrassing performance.  Brazil did the honors in 2002 and Portugal did it in 2004 and 2006. The tactical, technical and motivational gulf between the teams is always obvious.

I was there for the 2006 quarter-final against Portugal and will never forget how pathetic England’s “star” players were.  Frank Lampard, in particular, did not seem at the least bit interested in the game.  First, Wayne Rooney lost his cool and got sent off early in the second-half, but, to his credit this showed that at least he cared about the team.  That, for me, was the most typifying moment of the tournament and England in the 2000’s—not for Rooney’s hot head, but for Lampard’s pathetic apathy to the game.  Rooney had already dropped into midfield to fight for the ball because of the atrocious service he was getting from the midfielders.  He was battling with two Portuguese players for the ball, and a few yards behind him was Frank Lampard, shoulders dropped like Charlie Brown on his sad walk, with no interest whatsoever in helping out his team-mate.  Lampard could—and should—have ran a couple of yards further to open up an option for Rooney, or gotten stuck in to help him out. But he did not. Instead, he continued to walk around midfield like a drunken hobo. I think Rooney was far incensed with his own team-mates and that’s why he stamped on Carvalho.

Lampard, however, went on his holidays early, published another awful autobiography and went on to bilk millions in money and sponsorship while talking about how much it means to him to play for England and all the rest of that tripe. But before that, in the shoot-out he took the meekest penalty that could’ve been saved by a blind keeper.

In the other defining moment of England’s decade in that game, Eriksson picked Jamie Carragher, of all people, to take an England penalty.  He brought him on with a few minutes of extra time remaining, precisely so he could take a penalty.  This speaks volumes of Eriksson’s incompetence as a coach, because Jamie Carragher had never before taken a penalty in his professional career.  The farce escalated when Carragher was made to retake the penalty—he had not known that he had to wait for the referee to blow his whistle first.

This, I’m afraid, is England’s football team.  The most frustrating thing about these prima donnas was not that they do not play well; it is that they do not play well when they are clearly capable of doing much better.  In every one of their last three tournaments, England fielded a team that on paper was one of the best.  They may not have had a lot of strength in depth, but no other team could field a starting 11 with as many established first-teamers in Europe’s top sides. But while all these stars could perform excellently for Chelsea, Liverpool and ManUtd, they could never do anything similar for England.

The bulk of the blame must surely lie with the previous coaching regime.  With players of that caliber, it is only an incompetent manager that fails to get them to perform well. Sven Goran Eriksson was as incompetent as they get, as evidenced by his moronic choice of Carragher for the penalty, or his equally moronic decision to not have enough strikers in the squad and to take Theo “Fetus” Walcott to the World Cup when he’d not played 20 matches as a professional.  Had England somehow won that quarter-final with Portugal, they would have had a semi-final against Germany where their only eligible strikers were Peter Crouch and Theo Walcott—a partnership, at that time, that would not have been considered good enough to lead a midtable Premier League club.

But incompetence does not start or end with Eriksson—its root cause are the buffoons who run the English Football Association, who appointed Eriksson and rewarded him with a ridiculously lucrative contract regardless of results. Eriksson chose a wise choice of action for his pockets. His thought process could be summarized as: play the FA politics of the game correctly, and ensure a big paycheck; choose the path of least resistance, pick the team that the press and the fans want, so when it goes bad, they won’t blame it on me.

Since leaving England, Eriksson has gone on a journey of spectacular failure with Manchester City and Mexico. He will, this summer, be responsible for wrecking the chances of Africa’s best team in the tournament: Cote d’Ivoire.

To replace Eriksson, the FA went with his assistant, Steve McLaren, a man who had all the bad traits of Eriksson, with even less knowledge of the game. McLaren’s woeful England failed to make it to the European championship of 2008. His image standing under a giant red umbrella as it rained and England were eliminated by a Croatia side that had nothing to play for will haunt England fans for a long time.

McClaren looking like Mary Poppins--with less tactical knowledge

That should have convinced even the most die-hard of England fans that this team is cursed, and that these stars could not win anything.

Much hinges on Rooney and Capello

But all of that, however, was supposed to change in 2008 when the FA hired one of the best managers in the game.  Fabio “Don” Capello is as excellent a coach as you’ll ever find.  He’s won seven Seria A titles with Milan, Roma and Juventus (actually, five, if you remember that the two at Juve were later revoked) and two La Liga titles with Real Madrid.  He’s also won the Champions League and a closet-full of other stuff.  He’s a genius tactician, a ruthless leader and an excellent motivator of players.  If anyone can whip England’s lazy lads into shape, it is him.

Just when it seemed to most that this team is doomed and there was no hope of it ever winning, a new reason for hope emerged.  Surely, a manager of Capello’s caliber could work miracles with players of the like Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney and Terry.  And so, yet again, England fans find themselves hoping.  And, yet again, they enter a tournament with major expectations.  And yet again, the same media circus starts in full-gear. And yet again “Surely, this time is different” is the over-riding sentiment among the faithful.  It has, of course, been the over-riding sentiment every other time, as well, and look how that worked out.

Gerrard can do captain

Now, there are some reasons for optimism.  Wayne Rooney is in the form of his life, and one of the best strikers in the world.  Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and John Terry are all world class players among the best in the world in their positions, and are all 100% fit and ready to go.  Ashley Cole is, in my opinion, the best left-back in the world, and he seems to have recovered and is fit and ready.  Glenn Johnson can be incredible in right-back, England also have a lot of useful players who have accumulated a wealth of experience playing in the best league in the world, Premier League. In particular, players like Joe Cole, Shawn Wright-Philips, Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe are all capable of pulling off something special. Captain Steven Gerrard may have had a bad season at Liverpool, but everyone must remember his inspiring abilities as a leader of players on the pitch.  Just remember how he led Liverpool’s comeback in Istanbul in 2005.

England’s players also have a wealth of international experience. This will be the third or fourth major tournament for many of their players, and remember that these many of them are playing regularly in the Champions League against top international opposition.

Capello

Then, of course, there’s Capello. It’s hard to emphasize enough how important a coach is for the World Cup. To have a man capable of making the right decision at the right time is vital—a substitution or a tactical change could alter the course of the tournament.  England have a coach as good as they get.

And perhaps the biggest cause for optimism is the weather.  This World Cup will be held in the southern hemisphere winter—the first World Cup held in the winter since 1978.  This is a serious advantage most people haven’t yet noticed.  Every summer World Cup presents northern European teams with a major disadvantage: they are not used to playing in such heat. The European season is always off during the summer, and all its games are played in mild or cold temperatures.  Whenever England and other northern European nations turn up at a major tournament in the summer, you could see their players visibly discomfoted. Paul Scholes in particular used to look like a chicken dizzy in a sauna.

But this year it will be cold.  And the weather will be most similar to that in which English players have grown up playing—wet pitches, strong winds, strong rains—this is what defines English football and will give the English an advantage.

There are, however, many more reasons for pessimism.  Firstly, arriving at the tournament, the team faces the same problems it has always faced. For all of Capello’s genius, he has not yet managed to find a proper starting eleven to take the pitch, and has yet to resolve several important selection dilemmas.  One day before kick-off no one knows who of the three keepers he will start with—not even the keepers themselves.  And most depressing of all, the interminable Gerrard-Lampard soap opera is back.  Can Gerrard and Lampard play together in central midfield? This is one of the eternal questions dogging England, and it does not look like Capello has resolved it yet.  They look set to start together, again, and may fail to gel, as always.

Another recurring problem has emerged: there is no good choice for left midfield. Joe Cole has been on the bench at Chelsea, and James Milner has suffered a drop in form recently. Injuries have also started striking: Captain Rio Ferdinand has had to be withdrawn, and there are still concerns that Ashley Cole may not be at his best.

The off-field dramas and tabloid scandals have also been in full swing, with John Terry mainly to thank.  Tabloids revealed that he had impregnated the partner of his then Chelsea team-mate Wayne Bridge and got her an abortion. This led to Wayne Bridge dropping out of the national team, and Capello taking the captain’s armband from Terry.  Terry’s dad was also apparently caught selling coke, while his mom and mother in law were caught shop-lifting.  A lot of stories have also been circulating about Steven Gerrard’s private life, and his form for Liverpool does not inspire confidence.

And so, curiously enough, we find that the World Cup that was supposed to be different is actually not that different at all.  All the basic ingredients for a risible England capitulation are there.  Will they  fold again, or will this time be different for real?

I’m not optimistic at all, but don’t take my word for it.  Only time itself can tell.

The Guardian’s team guide.

Zonal Marking’s tactical analysis.

Squad list with links to player profiles on Fifa.com:

England

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About saifedean

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