James Lawton: England's culture of mediocrity highlighted by Italy's force of will
Published 29/06/2016 | 02:30
Of all the savageries inflicted on the reputation of England's national team this week not the least was that they followed Italy on to the stage.
Italy brought hard and thrilling drama.
England didn't look capable of carrying a spear.
It was the difference between professionals brilliantly led - and tempered by life and the demands of their lucrative and highly competitive business - and another group unschooled and shockingly unequipped for the challenge before them.
Giorgio Chiellini, for example, grew before our eyes. Wayne Rooney shriveled.
Italy's superb defeat of reigning champions Spain was a glorious confirmation that one of the world's most formidable football cultures, a winner of the World Cup four times, had remade itself.
England's defeat by Iceland said precisely the opposite. It declared that England, which boasts the richest of all national leagues, had never been further away from its one significant achievement - the World Cup win before their own people 50 years ago.
In the next few weeks, there will no doubt be many backward glances as the ruling English FA launch a series of heavily sponsored golden anniversary celebrations.
If they were wise - which of course they are palpably not as the build up to this week's ultimate disaster so starkly reminded us - they would abort every single festivity.
They would do this because each one of them will only redefine the most miserable reality of 50 wasted years, of accumulated failure so inherent that, if the truth be told, the achievement of Iceland, with their strong, honest runners, long throw-in tactic and population of barely a third of a million, was not in fact the football miracle of all time.
It may have been England's most humiliating moment since defeat by the American amateurs in the Brazilian mining town of Belo Horizonte in the World Cup of 1950, but you didn't need to be Nostradamus to see it coming.
Iceland drew with Portugal - something beyond the powers of England in major tournaments since their 1966 semi-final success fuelled by the brilliance of Bobby Charlton - and Hungary and beat Austria.
That form didn't suggest a mis-match at Nice on Monday, just another dogfight for an England team which has looked nowhere near the class of such as France and Germany and Italy in the last few weeks.
England's catastrophic campaign has to be viewed with special disdain from the perspective of Italy.
The Italians arrived in France widely dismissed by their own following. They didn't have anyone resembling the great figures of the past like Baresi or Maldini, Totti or Cannavaro and their qualifying form had been indifferent.
But what they did have - and it was confirmed with withering conviction against the shell-shocked Spaniards - was a team of maturity and character and an understanding of exactly what was expected of them.
Above all they had a coach, Antonio Conte, who is maybe the least tranquillised son of a sometimes excitable nation.
England, with all due respect to a civilised man with a decent if unremarkable record in club football, had Roy Hodgson.
For entirely different reasons, the television cameras played on both men's touchline performance. It was a gruesome head-to-head examination.
The animated Conte played out every move, recalling the old assertion of the great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly that football was more important than life and death.
No wrong step, no faulty positioning, no failure of imagination, was too small for him to seize upon. He lived every moment of his team's performance, as he had plotted it, acutely and passionately.
By comparison, it was disconsolate 'Woy,' who looked most like a witness of a road crash. What was most difficult to believe at times was that he was supposed to be driving.
Comparing the performances, individually and collectively, of the Italian and England teams was no less devastating to the reputations of the latter.
No-one in the English team had anything like the authority or composure of a Chiellini or a Leonardo Bonucci or Andrea Barzagli.
The Italian old guard devoured the field in front of them - and behind them was Gianluigi Buffon, at 38 drawing together all the strands of his experience, all the reach of his ambition.
In front, Graziano Pelle of Southampton held the ball up magnificently under the weight of a once unbreakable Spanish defence and when he delivered the decisive sword stroke we had a superb example of the range and the recovered depth of the Italian game.
Again, we should not be surprised that such a gulf was so evident.
When Italy - European Championship finalists against a sublime Spain in Kiev four years ago - were ejected from the 2014 World Cup, there was no prolonged debate over the future of the much-respected coach Cesare Prendelli. He walked, as did most of the unsuccessful coaches in Brazil.
Hodgson, whose tournament was over after two games, never had such pressure. He could serve another two years and, we know well enough, would have been handed another contract but for the Icelandic ambush.
How could it be so? Why is it that Italian coaches accept so readily the responsibilities of office, understand that they have a limited time to make some impact on players they work with only briefly, while their English counterparts lurch from one point of mediocrity to another?
It is because Italian football puts a value on performance, knows that if winning cannot always be guaranteed there must, at the very least, be evidence of progress, a sense that a coach has the capacity to shape and toughen the minds of his players.
The result is a tradition not just of winning coaches, first laid down by the father of Italian football, Vittorio Pozzo, with his Olympic gold in Berlin under the nose of Hitler and two World Cup triumphs, and Enzo Bearzot in Spain in 1982 and Marcello Lippi, Germany 2006, but teacher-philosophers like Arrigo Sacchi, Azeglio Vicini and, in the best of his days, Giovanni Trapattoni.
Against such a list of football drivers and educators, the English riposte is so much less than overwhelming.
There was, of course, the driven Alf Ramsey, the winner in 1966, and the promise of Terry Venables, who left in frustration after guiding England to third place in Euro 96. Bobby Robson had his moments, ultimately unfulfilled.
The rest is a wasteland. Once again, English football has been laid bare.