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It pains me to type this, as it is only January, but all indicators suggest 2010 will not be England's year. On a recent trip to London, the signs of impending disaster were so evident, observing them felt like rubbernecking.
A glance in the window of one of the many bookmakers lining the city's high streets told me all I needed to know. Squeezed in between posters showcasing corpulent darts professionals (in case you missed it, the World Darts Championships finished last week) were omnipresent advertisements for the World Cup in which the English national team had been recklessly installed as 5-1 second favorites behind Spain. Fans of Brazil, the Netherlands and Germany will no doubt be rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
Matteo, an Italian friend I dined with on my first night home, certainly found the odds to be amusing. He laughed as he described how Italian fans made London feel like Rome after the Azzurri's victory in 2006 as he joined thousands of other Italians in a sambuca-soaked Trafalgar Square celebration. After cabbing it home at 4 a.m., Matteo stumbled toward his front door only to be accosted by the taxi driver, who called him back:
Driver: How old are you, son?
Matteo: (nervously stammering) Thirty-six.
Driver: (referring to Italy's marvelous 1982 triumph) So you remember winning the World Cup twice in your lifetime?
Driver: (eyes wide open in a childlike wonder) Please. I'm begging you. Can you describe to me exactly what that feels like?
|England's Frank Lampard has been far short of his best form in the Premiership this season.|
This is the sound of 44 years of desperation and the cab driver is not alone. English soccer fans are amongst the most masochistic in the world. Before every tournament, they begin a familiar ritual, working themselves into a World Cup frenzy of overinflated expectation, cocksure that victory is the nation's destiny. A collective delusion, born perhaps of England's proud position as the original home of the game and host of the Premier League, numbs the nation to the harsh realities of the team's actual tournament record since it lifted the World Cup in 1966 for the first and only time:
Hearts broken: too many to count or heal.
Italian master tactician Fabio Capello has been imported to shatter this toxic combination of overconfidence and tattered hope. Few doubt he will do better than the team's last foreign coach, the sex scandal-plagued Swede, Sven Goran Eriksson, who came closest to winning a trophy by coming second in a condom manufacturer's man of the year award. Capello's achievements thus far have been commendable, most notably his demystification of Croatia in qualifying. Capello's management of the relentless buzz saw that is the English tabloid media has been even more impressive. He first denounced the team's WAGS, those girlfriends gone wild, and then coolly made it known he has determined the players he will task with penalty-taking duties should the team be faced by its traditional poisoned chalice of a shootout. The wily Italian let no names slip, but the palliative effect of the revelation was as if he had administered a Xanax to an entire nation.
Over the next five months, Capello faces his most critical challenge: finalizing the squad he plans to infuse with sufficient technique and organization to augment the traditional English attributes of passion, physicality, huff and puff. This week he flew back to Italy for knee replacement surgery which will take six weeks to fully rehabilitate. His aching joint may soon heal, but the headaches created by the following interlinked tactical challenges he must unravel will not fade so fast:
Can the captain lead by example?
Capello appointed John Terry as his captain in August 2008, declaring the Chelsea defender's "big personality" to have been the deciding factor in his decision. A series of recent embarrassments caused by some of the seedier aspects of this big personality may have the Italian manager doubting his judgment.
First, a marketing agency retained by Terry's agents circulated an e-mail designed to crudely capitalize on the captain's armband for commercial gain. Herewith a sample quote: "John Terry is: British sporting hero; England's football captain; World Cup 2018 ambassador; Football icon; Dad of the year 2008; Voted as one of the World's most influencial (sic) people."
Terry distanced himself from the e-mail and then walked slap bang into a second scandal: a trap set by the weekend tabloid, News of The World. Three of its journalists posed as businessmen willing to exchange an illicit suitcase full of cash with Terry if he agreed to smuggle them into Chelsea's training facilities for a secret behind-the-scenes tour. The hacks taped their conversation as they asked if the arrangement could be repeated for their colleagues to which Terry responded, "Yeah, but you brief them that they don't speak to no one. 'Cause if anyone finds out, then we can't do it no more." The damage to Terry's leadership credibility was surpassed only by that which the national team captain inflicted upon the English language.
Will true glove be hard to find?
The strikers get the goals, the girls and the cash, but in the modern game, few positions are tactically more critical than goalkeeper. In September, Italian coach Marcello Lippi was asked who the star playmaker was on his team. He deadpanned, "We have our fantasista in goal, his name is Gigi Buffon." England's Italian is not so blessed. His goalies have been so unreliable that he no doubt covets both Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, the options available to Bob Bradley, his American counterpart. Portsmouth's David James has been both unfit and unsettled. The form of Robert Green, Paul Robinson and Ben Foster has been erratic at best, leaving the comparatively raw Joe Hart to become widely touted by default. None of these options will inspire confidence, unless you are a Slovenian striker.
Going backward at forward?
The last team to win the World Cup with a dodgy keeper was Brazil in 2002. Goalkeeper Marcos had the good fortune to leave the tournament with a medal around his neck on that occasion thanks to the explosive offense provided by Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. England's strike force pales in comparison. Wayne Rooney may be one of the finest all-round players in the world today, but the debate over who should join him has become a national obsession.
Thanks to his support play, the burly Emile Heskey has become an oddity: an athlete who is more of a threat at the international level than in the Premier League. The rest of the options come in all shapes and sizes: the leggy Peter Crouch, pocket-sized Jermaine Defoe and powerful Carlton Cole are all battling it out although none has consistently convinced in an England shirt. Michael Owen is increasingly becoming a sorry sideshow at Manchester United. He may have set the 1998 World Cup on fire, but in his few recent run-outs, he has skulked around the pitch with the demeanor of a former child star crushed by the realization his career glories were all front-loaded.
Is the (World) Class half-empty or half-full?
The task of rounding out his squad is a knotty puzzle for Capello, but the current form of his likely starters is arguably an even greater cause for concern. The core members of his team, deemed by the media, and their agents, to be truly world class, have been anything but. Until recently, the squad appeared to be stocked in central midfield, but Liverpool dynamo Steven Gerrard has been so lackluster that many journalists have begun to wonder if he has become a spent force. Gerrard's uncharacteristic impotence is perhaps the only reason so few have noticed the flat performances Frank Lampard, his partner/nemesis in central midfield, has been turning in for Chelsea. Defensive mainstay Rio Ferdinand is mysteriously crocked and two players who have stayed fit and in form -- Ashley Cole and Rooney -- must fear the effects of this being the most wide-open Premier League competition in recent history. The season looks like as though it will go down to the wire, and by the time the World Cup kicks off, the Algerians may be box-fresh in comparison to a physically exhausted English side.
As bleak as matters may appear for Capello on the soccer front, the good news for the English is, they are already 2010 world champions in darts. The nation gained the only world title it will earn this year when legendary chucker Phil "The Power" Taylor became world darts champion after a comprehensive victory over Australian Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock. With trophy in hand, Taylor barely paused to bask in his own achievement before proclaiming, "I'll help England win the World Cup." The former ceramic toilet-roll maker immediately placed himself at the national team's disposal, offering to aid Capello in preparing his side psychologically by training the side in "what goes through my mind when I'm taking a big shot at the world championship final." The Sun was bullish about this news, bombastically proclaiming "Phil to the Rescue" in a headline that no doubt caused a stampede of housewives in the direction of their local bookmakers to back their team to victory.
Roger Bennett is the co-author of the forthcoming ESPN World Cup Companion, your guide to everything you need to know to enjoy the 2010 World Cup. E-mail him at email@example.com.