Sport World Cup

Sunday 22 April 2018

England's insularity at heart of downfall

Capello finally waking up to dreaded reality of crippling flaws in his adopted nation's psyche, writes Dion Fanning

The England fan stayed slumped in his seat. He had a beer in one hand and a look of studied disdain in his eye. The Algerian national anthem was being played and he saw no reason to get up. This was his adolescent statement of contempt made ridiculous because he was in his 30s. For him, this was as good as it got. Nothing that happened on Friday at the Green Point Stadium in Cape Town forced him to get up from his seat as England failed to score against Algeria. By the end of the night, his contempt for the enemy had been replaced by the old familiar feeling of self-loathing.

His anger is righteous now as England turn on themselves but his world-view is the world-view that has destroyed English football.

England might get out of their group when they play Slovenia on Wednesday night, at which point they will cling to whatever delusion they can. The reality is that England's World Cup will be over within a week.

No manager could change the English football culture, certainly not in 12 competitive matches, but on Friday night Capello sounded dangerously honest -- or he may have been bewildered. Of course, he could easily be both.

Capello's insistence that his players are performing very well in training is not going to endear him to the self-righteous mob that booed England off on Friday. Wayne Rooney was right to speak of them as he did but they see some direct link between the money they pay for flights and their right to be entertained.

England can talk all they like about how winners of the tournament often start badly. This is not Italy or Germany we are talking about. England usually start badly and they don't go on to win the World Cup. In 1990, they had two draws in their opening games against Ireland and Holland before beating Egypt, qualifying for the knock-out stages and reaching the semi-finals. But they didn't draw with the USA and Algeria. In 1990, they didn't have Emile Heskey.

Heskey was pitiful on Friday night. He is a man in need of sympathy because, it must be remembered, he doesn't pick the team. If he did pick the team, he probably wouldn't pick himself.

Heskey is an aberration in the side. He is a player of whom there is no expectation, but even that is too much of a burden for him. It is Capello who picks him.

England knew all they needed to know abut Heskey six years ago, but still they persevere and there is something revealing in the selection of Heskey.

Capello, like Giovanni Trapattoni, sometimes cannot contain his frustration at the manner in which footballers from these islands approach the game. If they are going to be headless, his logic seems to run, I might as well not ask them to do any thinking.

He has tried to reduce it to the bare minimum with his no-risk football. But there is a paradox at the heart of conservative managers like Capello and Trapattoni. They gamble that the opponents they allow to play will do nothing with the ball. Algeria tormented England all night on Friday and the damage was done. Their failure to score might have kept England in the competition but Capello's side looked broken.

Capello was hired to be tough. England had tired of the love-in of Sven and the desperate clawing of McClaren. They wanted tough love without the love. They may have projected a sadistic streak onto Capello as he banned mobile phones and barked at the players on the training ground (where, of course, they were performing excellently) but nothing changed. Now they are being masochistic again with the only sadistic act being the continued selection of Heskey.

This is not a story of tactics or of dressing-room unrest, although they are the stories this weekend. Capello is floundering but that is to be expected. He thought he had changed the mentality, but a culture that took 50 years to shape won't be changed by a Theo Walcott hat-trick in Zagreb.

This week will demonstrate his toughness or reveal who really runs the show. Since he stripped John Terry of the captaincy for non-footballing reasons, Capello has shown a vulnerability to the demands of the media. He let them in on that occasion and this week they will be breaking down the door.

He will probably gamble and give them what they want; he seems unsure what else will work. "It is incredible, the mistakes of some of the players," he said on Friday, as baffled as everyone else.

Capello insists that Wayne Rooney is fit although he looked weary in body and mind in Cape Town. "We have to send him in from training, he is fit."

His ordered world now depends on 90 frantic minutes in Port Elizabeth on Wednesday and he appears to be making it up as he goes along.

Capello spent some time last week complaining about the Jabulani match ball but it turned out that in February a consignment of the adidas ball was lost by the FA. England were preparing to fail.

On Friday night, Capello tried to change things at half-time. He had a big idea. The second half began with Terry bursting forward from defence. Capello had clearly told his defenders to advance with the ball and allow the midfielders to get further forward. They did it once. It was half an hour before Terry attempted to do the same thing again but by that stage everyone else had forgotten about England's latest wheeze.

England's problem is not a problem of tactics, of whether Joe Cole should start or if they have less gifted players technically than other nations. Those things would have some relevance if the key matter was addressed and the key matter can't be addressed because there is nobody who can address it.

England's players reflect the culture they come from. They are unthinking, unquestioning and passive aggressive. "England has lost its nerve," Tom Stoppard wrote and he wasn't talking about the football team.

The aggression has been drawn from the footballers and only anxiety remains. The unknown terrifies and paralyses them. The philosophy of the Daily Mail has destroyed the part of England that chooses to engage with it, primarily its sporting and political worlds.

Capello spoke of the fear that seems to have gripped his players afterwards. He thought it was fear of the World Cup. In fact, it is fear of the world.

Algeria's Hassan Yebda spent some time reflecting on the game in the mixed zone on Friday night. Steven Gerrard had dismissed Algeria's performance, remarking that it was Algeria's "cup final". "This wasn't our cup final," Yebda said, "this was our second game in the group. We have one more to play."

Through circumstance and nature, the England players tend to fly through these places, stopping at some designated stop-off points before shooting through. They are in the World Cup, but they discover nothing of the world. Only David James is inclined to stop in front of strange faces. It contrasts with the ease with which the great players of other countries saunter along. Every four years, England behave the same way: they keep their heads down and scuttle through, stopping to deliver sound-bites to the press they despise with some cause.

They believe they are under siege and on nights like Friday, they are right. But the only way they can lift the siege is by acting as if it has been lifted.

English football has improved over the past 20 years because the wit and intelligence has been imported. The best clubs have not only brought in foreign players, but foreign managers, again highlighting a flaw in the culture of the game. England, as represented by its football culture, is insular. Their response to the arrival of the world's best players and managers is revealing too. They think it has prevented their players from rising when in fact they would have been doomed without them.

Freed from the expectation to think, players like Gerrard and Frank Lampard have become effective for their clubs. It is not that they can't play together, it's that they can't be what they are not. Capello, even in his limited and conservative fashion, is asking them to do things they are not used to doing: to question and to adapt on a football field.

"When we are in training everything is perfect but then something happens. I think it is the fear of the World Cup," Capello said late on Friday night, perhaps stunned into honesty. "It is incredible, the performance in training is good and then this happens. I am surprised this is happening."

He is the only one. Before Wednesday, they will prostrate themselves. They will talk about coaches and academies, they will talk about the superior technique of the continentals and the pace of the Premier League and they will drop Heskey. But it won't make any difference.

"It is in the mind," Capello said of his team's problems. He talks of his team in training and then looks at the team he has seen in the first two games and says "that is not the England that I know". He hasn't done his research.

Capello now seems as desperate as everyone else. Asked on Friday if he accepted that England could not win the World Cup, he was precise if awkward while the FA media man's eyes blinker furiously beside him. "I think . . . I hope, not I think, that after one big performance, the mind of the players will be free and they can play like the England that I know."

He is merely hoping now -- and hope and England no longer rhyme.

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