| 16.8°C Dublin

Rio carnival is over

CALL it a captain's sense of responsibility, call it a desire to get down to business, but Rio Ferdinand was the first England player onto the training pitch at Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus yesterday morning -- first on and, regrettably, first off in a crumpled heap.

On a personal level, it was a tragedy for Ferdinand, whose hopes of lifting the World Cup as England captain at Soccer City on July 11 were ended at a stroke when he damaged knee ligaments in a routine encounter -- not a collision -- with Emile Heskey towards the end of the training session.

The question is whether, as Ferdinand departed with his World Cup over before it had begun, a nation's hopes went with him.

Hope will remain, of course, but expectation, if it had not already receded over the nine months since England secured their qualification with a superb 5-1 victory over Croatia at Wembley, drifted a little farther. A couple of bookmakers reacted accordingly -- lengthening their odds so that England, inexplicably listed as second-favourites behind Spain at one stage, now trail Argentina and Brazil -- and no doubt optimism grew among the United States squad, who face Fabio Capello's team in their opening game a week today.

There are more devastating blows that England could have suffered a week before the World Cup -- the loss of Wayne Rooney is the one that springs to mind -- and there are injuries that would cause more national grief, as can be seen from the reaction in March when David Beckham ruptured his Achilles tendon.

But Ferdinand is a big loss, in part because of what he does on the pitch, in part because of what he does off it and in part because his immediate understudy, Ledley King, is a player whose own knees are so fragile that he cannot train with the rest of the squad on a daily basis.

There had been a false alarm over England's central defence a few weeks earlier, when John Terry injured a foot while training for Chelsea but was given the all-clear after a scan revealed no damage.

Back then, the idea of King stepping into the breach was seen by many as an attractive one, but that was before the Tottenham Hotspur captain returned to the international stage, after an absence of almost three years, and found himself flustered by the speed and unpredictability of Mexico's forward line at Wembley.

Ferdinand is not the quickest or the most mobile these days, either -- a persistent and troublesome back injury has seen to that -- but there will not be too many people who dare to suggest that his absence is a blessing in disguise. His central-defensive partnership with Terry, outstanding at the 2006 World Cup finals, has not always convinced over the past few years, in which both players have struggled at times with loss of form and injury, but it is rather late in the day to be looking at putting Jamie Carragher, Matthew Upson or Michael Dawson alongside the Chelsea captain.

Perhaps they would have done anyway -- on the basis not only of the Mexico game but also of several other matches over the past two and a half years -- but opposing managers such as Bob Bradley, the tactically astute US coach, will look at England's defence without Ferdinand and seek to expose an ever more glaring lack of pace.

Fabio Capello would still expect England to cope with anything that the US, Algeria and Slovenia throw at them in the group stage, but what about thereafter, when quicker and more incisive opponents will await?

It is a little-mentioned fact that England's defence has been porous throughout Capello's tenure. In 24 matches they have kept clean sheets on just seven occasions -- against the US, Trinidad and Tobago, Andorra (twice), Slovakia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. The lack of an established goalkeeper has often been cited, and David James missed training yesterday with a knee problem, as has Glen Johnson's questionable grasp of the art of defending, but the back four, as a unit, has never performed to anything like the level Capello demands of his teams.

As for whether England's squad has been weakened by the injury to Ferdinand, of course it has. Dawson, by almost universal recognition, had a more successful, consistent season than the Manchester United defender -- or, indeed, Terry -- but he has yet to play for his country.

After being called into the 30-man provisional squad last month, he tried but failed to oust Upson, who had a fairly abject season at West Ham United. Level-headed as he may be, a World Cup is no place for Dawson to make his England debut.

Dawson's elevation -- and the turnaround in his emotions, from rejection on Tuesday to elation yesterday -- is a wonderful story in one regard, but it is not one that necessarily inspires confidence. When asked whether he could sympathise with Ferdinand, he sought to draw a parallel with his experience of missing the Carling Cup final in 2008 -- "and there was nothing anyone could say to make me feel better".

England's hopes have not gone down the drain. Where there are players of the quality and experience of Terry, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Rooney there will always be hope, but expectation is another thing entirely.

England have been fortunate in the past few years to have a nucleus of top-class players, but their number has been reduced by one and, even if the identity of the unfortunate absentee might have been predictable after his injury problems over the past couple of years, Ferdinand's injury is a big loss to his country and to himself.