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Saturday, June 19, 2010
C, as in "calamity," "catastrophe" ...

By Chris Jones
Special to

CAPE TOWN -- The World Cup's Group C -- England, the U.S., Slovenia and Algeria -- has somehow become the worst group here, a mistake-prone collection of misfires, failures and flubs. There have been pie-eating contests that have seen less gagging.

The C stands for Choke.

Friday, there were two more ties in the Group of Death by Attrition, both abysmal in their own, stomach-churning ways.

The first was unjust: the U.S. was robbed of a history-making comeback by a disastrous Malian referee -- American fans shouted the name of Koman Coulibaly in their interrupted sleep -- who turned a 3-2 American victory into a 2-2 draw. The spectacular recovery wouldn't have been necessary, of course, if coach Bob Bradley's porous defense had not spotted the foul-happy Slovenians a 2-0 lead by halftime.

The second draw was a mind-numbingly boring semi-contest between England and Algeria, a scoreless tie here that played out in front of a crowd of braying English fans. They finished the game by raining jeers down on Frank Lampard, who proved once again that he and Steven Gerrard are a match made somewhere other than heaven.

"It's incredible, the mistakes of the players," English manager Fabio Capello said after. "We played a no-good game. We miss everything. This is incredible for the level of the England players. This is not the England that I know."

"It could have been worse," Ashley Cole said. He was named the man of the match, probably because he was the only player who would dare show up at the postgame press conference.

Cole was right, though. It could have been worse; it could have been a replay of one of Group C's opening two matches, each marred by massive goalkeeping blunders. England's Robert Green gave the U.S. a 1-1 tie. Algeria's Faouzi Chaouchi did one better by doing one worse; his own gaffe handed the Slovenians a 1-0 win.

Each keeper was replaced Thursday night. Capello decided 39-year-old David "Calamity" James was a safer bet, and told him so five minutes before the team bus left the hotel for the stadium. Rais M'Bolhi, who plays his professional soccer in Bulgaria, stood in for an apparently injured Chaouchi. M'Bolhi began by nearly allowing an otherwise harmless Wayne Rooney cross in over his head.

It was the closest Rooney came to scoring all night. The English striker had another miserable game at the World Cup, managing just a single purposeful shot on target, a one-hopper from 25 yards outside the box.

His most accurate touch came when he kicked the ball at an Algerian player who had crumpled to the ground after a challenge, trying to wind down the clock. An exasperated Rooney had already tried to pick up another felled Algerian, hoisting him by his armpits.

As if that wasn't ugly enough, it appeared Rooney aggravated the ankle injury that has hobbled him for months. Twice in the waning minutes of the game, he limped to a stop to grab his foot.

"Rooney didn't play like Rooney," Capello said. "But he's not the problem. Probably it's the pressure."

Unfortunately, that pressure will only increase for Group C's third and final set of games: England now needs a win against Slovenia in Port Elizabeth on Wednesday to advance to the knockout stage, and if the Americans wish to control their own destiny, they'll also need to win against Algeria in Pretoria that same afternoon.

It's not how it should have been. Erase the mistakes, and Group C looks nothing like it does this morning: England should have a win and a tie; the United States should have a win and a loss; the Algerians should have a pair of ties; the Slovenians should have a tie and a loss.

But mistakes can't be erased. They can only be made up for. And the strange miracle of Group Choke is, everybody in it still has a chance for redemption.

Koman Coulibaly excepted.

Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.