Monday, 28 June 2010

Out of Africa: An Englishman's lament as the World Cup dream lies shattered

IT has taken me fully 24 hours to recover from the gut-wrenching pain of England’s awful surrender at this World Cup. My shoulders are slumped, my typing fingers heavy with a sense of loss. I’m just starting my first whisky and coke as Holland go 1-0 up against Slovakia.

Throughout the build-up to this tournament, I clung on to two firmly-held beliefs.

The first was that South Africa will defy the critics and host the best global showdown imaginable. The second was that England would be a real threat and could end 44 years of hope by lifting the trophy for the first time since 1966.

I have been proved gloriously right on the first count. And horrendously wrong on the second.

Their 4-1 defeat at the hand of Germany’s young, vibrant outfit is not eased by Frank Lampard’s goal being ruled out when it clearly crossed the line as it come down off the crossbar, just like Geoff Hurst’s might have in 1966.

By then it might have been 4-1 to the Germans. Obviously an equaliser at that point might have lifted England, but only for ten minutes.

In truth, this entire World Cup has seen England produce the most drab, passionless football of all the 32 nations who gathered for Africa’s first global shoot-out.

When England got rid of Sven Goran Eriksson four years ago, I said repeatedly on Sky News and elsewhere that we would look back on a golden era of three major quarter-finals when the Swede was banished. Home-grown Steve McClaren proved a serious mistake as we failed to even get to Spain 2008.

But we all had high hopes when Fabio Capello’s iron fist was eased into England’s silk glove. And qualification was near-perfect. But then, after a long, Chelsea -dominated season, England arrived in South Africa and the cracks began to appear.

John Terry’s unhappiness at that infamous press conference last Sunday was the only public outburst. But with so many players facing turmoil in their personal lives and an utter lack of form in those opening draws against the US and Algeria, we continued to believe.

Me and 30,000 other travelling England fans. To see those dreams so convincingly shattered by the dreaded Germans was a little too much to take. I met one small knot of supporters in Johannesburg after Argentina’s 3-1 triumph over Mexico at Soccer City. In one day, they had made the pilgrimage to Bloemfontein, a three hour drive south. Their exhausted faces said it all.

To witness Terry allowing the ball to bounce for Miroslav Klose’s opening goal – he muscled past Matthew Upson to score direct from a goal kick – was just the first blow of so many. Gareth Barry’s pathetic effort to cover the third goal showed he either never really recovered from injury or he just doesn’t care.

It’s tempting to suggest none of them really care. It often looked that way here, as they emerged from their luxurious Bafokeng Sports Campus training base to shock us with their lack of oomph. While it has cost so many Three Lions fans upwards of £5,000 to get here, these £100,000-a-week amateurs seem far more driven by their Premier League paymasters than by Capello’s leaden fist.

I have no solutions to the England malaise. Perhaps Terry, Lampard, the woeful Wayne Rooney and stand-in captain Steve Gerrard simply look good in the mud and guts of club football because they are surrounded by foreign quality.

Perhaps all of them have such serious problems in their private lives that they can’t raise themselves to play for their nation.

It’s easy to suggest too that England, fielding a side so much older than the Germans, stuck to their “Golden Generation” for too long, much like Italy and France, who surrendered even before we did.

It matters not which set of excuses you use. From my lofty perch, they didn’t look passionate or committed. They didn’t look talented or tough. They were simply pathetic, to the point where I began to wish I was Algerian. Or even North Korean.

And on that note we shall leave the Three Lions to lick their wounds. And get on and enjoy the rest of this fabulous tournament, having seen my dream route to glory prematurely terminated. It is too painful to pick at the corpse of English football any longer. Rest In Peace.

And if anybody really thinks Roy Hodgson, my old coach, can succeed where Capello failed, they’d best think again. I shall be supporting Portugal. And hope they make me proud.

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