With just 19 days separating today and the start of the world’s biggest football competition, and with the rugged German and Italian champions flying the flag for the elite of club soccer tonight, it is safe to say that all English men and women are quite happy to buy into the hype of World Cup fever and hope that the international distraction will get them through the summer (and indeed, through another 44 years).
But as my own South African dreams were bitten and broken by the venom of Thierry Henry’s very own Hand of God, I have been able to adopt a more cynical analysis of the would-be-delight of the promises of June/July.
And as the other home nations once again prepare for yet another Summer in absentia, I have found myself falling into the trap of reluctant support for the England campaign – but grow increasingly disillusioned as a “fan”.
Don’t get me wrong, Fabio Capello is doing a great job, and when England shot out of their qualifying blocks with 24 points from 8 games, I was thinking that 2010 could be their year. Not only that, but the Italian masterminded 2 victories over Croatia (their biggest threat to qualification) by a goal difference of +7; and having succeeded in winning a place in the finals with 2 games to spare, I wasn’t worried about the defeat to a Ukraine outfit who desperately needed the points.
Maybe though, it would have suited the St. George’s men a lot better had the World Cup actually taken place a lot closer to October (their final group game), when their momentum was unstoppable. Because as the weeks and months drag on; the air of invincibility within the England camp grows thinner and thinner, the nation begins to analyze any detail of every player, and the threat of rival countries becomes all too apparent as doubt begins to gnaw into championship ambitions.
The time between October and June has also allowed me to reconsider throwing my money at the 7/1 (3rd favourite) odds I could get for Capello’s men to reign supreme in Capetown come the 11th July.
The time between then and now has made me realise that this current England squad are no different to any of the other 21st century outfits. These crop of players aren’t disimilar to the team that failed to reach the group stages of Euro 2008. Yes, they are more organised and certainly more focused and have what would appear to be a lot more self belief. But should they be so confident? Should the odds be so short for England to break their 44 year trophy draught?
It’s easy to argue that they have destroyed Croatia (their supposedly only test to date) with two ruthless masacres… but when the dust settled, Croatia failed to reach the World Cup finals – in fact, they acquired an inferior points tally than the Ukraine did (who would later be knocked out by Greece). In truth, Capello has faced just 5 decent opponents and of these, has won just one of them (Germany way back in 2008). And, of course, the likes of Holland, Spain, Brazil and France are frightening opposition (although having been outplayed be the Republic of Ireland, I would question the latter’s inclusion), but this is the genus of quality that England will have to overcome if they are to prevail from Africa with a winner’s medal come July. And unfortunately, these are the standard of teams who not only I can’t see England overcoming, but the type of nation in which Capello has struggled to gain a result against in the past. Therefore, I have seen nothing of Fabio’s England that would suggest that they can improve on their customary average of a quarter final defeat.
However, if the past teaches us nothing, then maybe we can learn something from the future – where we have been given an insight to with the selection of the provisional squad of 30. Aston Villa, who fielded 14 English nationalities throughout the course of this season, will have just 2 players on the final plane to South Africa (Warnock will lose out to Baines). One of these players will be Emile Heskey. Heskey, with 3 goals to his name, has been selected ahead of our first choice striker, Gabby Agbonlahor. Heskey, who has been dropped for the majority of our games, makes up 50% of the players representing Aston Villa for England. Meanwhile, Gabby, with 13 goals to boast, hasn’t even been considered. Gabby, who can hold the ball up as well as Heskey and lead the line as effectively as anyone, stays at home. I’m not sure who should be most embarrassed by this decision: Emile Heskey or Fabio Capello – because it is a travesty; and a selection which will only hinder England’s search for glory.
Meanwhile, the selection of the two City slickers is further testament to the appalling job completed by the decisions panel. Shaun Wright Phillips; who not only has been out of form, but out of favour for the entire second half of the season, has, like Heskey, been deemed immune to Capello’s policy of selecting only those players who are in form and playing regularly. It is an outrage that such an inconsistent, non-entity of a player has been made an exceptional circumstance and selected ahead of two-times left winger of the year Ashley Young. It is blatantly obvious that Young is a much more technically gifted footballer than SWP and their effect for their respective clubs in the past 5 months bears no comparison. Yet, Young, like Agbonlahor, has been deemed surplus to requirements.
Andy Johnson. Probably the most disappointing decision of them all. Clearly, he’s not a bad player; but at 22, he still has a lot to learn. He set up 5 goals in his 5 months for City, but down the road in Birmingham; Capello could have chosen the older, the internationally experienced and ready-made left footer Stewart Downing in his place. In fact, Johnson seems to be just a clone of his former teammate, but the current England manager followed the footsteps of his predecessors and bowed to the hype and pressure of the English media.
Recalling the retired Jamie Carragher to the setup was another blunder. This has hardly been the Liverpool player’s best season (not by any stretch) and the fact that he had turned his back on his country should have dismissed any notion that his name be even considered. Bringing him in as full back cover is another questionable decision. Designed as a raw, last-ditch centre back, Carragher will fail to make an impact on the wing (offensively and defensively), and in Gary Neville, Capello could have had a much more competent, and loyal, full back substitute.
All in all, it seems to be a case of “more of the same” as England prepare for yet another major tournament. The eventual switch of Steven Gerrard to the left flank is testament that nothing ever changes in the England setup as Capello attempts to accommodate all his big names. Instead, players should be selected on the basis of who is the best for each position (not on the idea of selecting your 11 best players). European champions, and tournament favourites, Spain, will line out with the exclusion from the first team of names from this list of ridiculously gifted players: Fabregas, Alonso, Busquets and David Silva. Worryingly though, Capello seems to have shirked every big decision to date. His attempted acquisition of Paul Scholes, in my opinion, is further admission to his belief that his team can’t cut it. Not only will England have to come through the dreaded penalty shootout at some stage if they are to be crowned champions, but they must overcome opposition who they have, in the past and recently, just simply been second best to.
Goalkeepers: Joe Hart, David James, Robert Green.
Defenders: Leighton Baines, Jamie Carragher, Ashley Cole, Michael Dawson, Rio Ferdinand, Glen Johnson, Ledley King, John Terry, Matthew Upson, Stephen Warnock.
Midfielders: Gareth Barry, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard, Tom Huddlestone, Adam Johnson, Frank Lampard, Aaron Lennon, James Milner, Scott Parker, Theo Walcott, Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Forwards: Darren Bent, Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, Emile Heskey, Wayne Rooney