Monday 19 February 2018

Fear of failure always stifles genuine ambition

Capello at odds with England's fragile state of mind, writes Paul Wilson

Spain are World Cup holders, but Germany were among the biggest winners last summer in South Africa.

While it can be argued that an abysmal refereeing decision and English naivety in chasing the game contributed to the emphatic 4-1 victory over Fabio Capello's team in Bloemfontein, beating Argentina 4-0 in the subsequent quarter-final was a joyously sensational result.

Some would suggest Argentina were not at their best under the eccentric guidance of Diego Maradona, and they may well have a point. Yet it was impossible to imagine England beating Maradona's Argentina by four goals in a quarter-final, indeed there was a suspicion from the outset that English self-belief began to evaporate as soon as it became clear that first Germany then Argentina lay in the way of progress.

All this can be filed under ancient history now, though there appears to be an ongoing problem with English self-belief. Capello is battling against something he does not really understand, since all his training and experience led him to believe that he can successfully organise and bring the best out of a squad of talented footballers. That is what he has at his disposal, and that is exactly what he was doing in the qualification phase for the last World Cup, only to be confronted by some form of mental impasse as the tournament approached.

He was not the only leading coach left perplexed by his team's non-performance -- quite apart from France's internal strife, Italy's limp, early exit left Marcello Lippi almost tearful as he searched for an explanation -- but Italy were World Cup winners as recently as 2006 and, like France, they will come again.

With England you begin to wonder. Not just because it will soon be 50 years since 1966 and all that, but because good players have been and gone, experienced coaches have tried and failed and promising situations have come to nothing. Not only do English players still perform better for their clubs than they do for their country, it seems to be the case that the pressure to end half a century of hurt is inhibiting each generation more than the last.

Capello has just turned to the latest generation, making a point of praising Jack Wilshere because he plays without fear. What he means is that older England players, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, for instance, do play with fear, or at least they are insufficiently relaxed with England to play their natural game. Craig Bellamy has just confirmed that Gerrard, a Liverpool team-mate at the time, was even nervous about playing Andorra. "One of the greatest players in the world over the last 10 years told me he didn't want to risk giving the ball away because he was afraid of the boos," the Wales striker said. "I watched England in South Africa and they just looked so tense all the time."

Unlike Germany, who looked about as tense as Denmark when coming straight from the beach to win Euro 92. Yet if any country should suffer from the weight of expectation and consequent fear of failure, which one should it be?

The one with three World Cups and three European Championships to its name and a record of reaching more than a dozen finals, or the nation that has managed one final and one solitary success in its entire history, playing at home 45 years ago?

If the latter, on the grounds that familiarity breeds insouciance while repeated failures stack up accusingly, how come we ended up with a World Cup final between two sides aiming for their first gold star while Uruguay, with a pedigree even dustier than England's, played like a dream?

Wayne Rooney was once in Wilshere's shoes, playing so fearlessly in Euro 2004 he briefly threatened to win the tournament on his own, and before that there was Michael Owen, even more briefly, in France 98. One feels that if England could get 11 fearless players on the pitch they might have a chance.

Unfortunately, a pattern has been established whereby individuals burn brightly for a short time before becoming either burned-out or subsumed in the general torpor. Just about the last time a whole England side played like Germany, showing no fear and notching a result to surprise the world, was in Germany 10 years ago.

Significantly perhaps, Sven-Goran Eriksson's team thought their World Cup chance had gone and were never expected to win in Munich, least of all by five goals to one. Pressure works in mysterious ways, though we all know what happened in Japan in 2002. Both teams lost to Brazil, but the real Germans did so in the final.


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