…And breathe. That’s your lot. It’s the second week of June, and it’s finally, finally the end of the 2008/09 football season in England. This being England, of course, the nagging doubt that one of these days they will get turned over by a team like Andorra, a team of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers with not much greater ambition than to turn up at somewhere like Wembley and keep a clean sheet. Of course it never ends up like that (which is the reason why the once in a lifetime wins for the likes of The Faroe Islands and Liechenstein stick in the memory. With each crushing defeat, however (and, make no mistake, this was a crushing defeat) the clamour grows to sort the wheat from the chaff and make these countries play off against each other.
In previous years, I would have argued against such a measure, but it becomes increasingly difficult to defend when one sits through a match that is so one-sided. A small pot of money for the Andorran FA aside, what exactly have they got out of this evening’s match? What, indeed, have they ever got from their involvement in international football? In a shade over ten years, they have managed three competitive wins, against Belarus, Macedonia and Albania. On the evidence of this evening’s match – with the “park the team bus in front of the goal” tactical method once again thrown into the mix, they haven’t learnt very much from it or, if they haven’t done very much other than use their size to justify a style of football that we would call catenaccio if it was ever, ever successful.
If all of this sounds a little harsh, it isn’t meant to. I am fully aware of the limitations that a national team with a population the size of St Albans must face. Pitting the countries of this size against each other would, at least, give them something to cheer about every once in a while. Virtually every club tournament is seeded in order to prevent this sort of landslide from taking place, and the arguments against expanding this principle to international football seems to be a rational one rather than a logical one. For England, this evening, at the end of a long, hard season, there could only be the risk yellow cards, suspensions and injuries. It was a no-win match. Drawing or losing wasn’t going to be an option, and winning would be compromised by the paucity of the opposition on display.
In spite of all of this, 58,000 people somehow negotiated their way across London to watch. The jury remains out on whether England fans are extraordinarily loyal or extraordinarily foolish, but anyone that has spent more than about three minutes in London during an underground strike will be amazed by the fact that such a huge number could have managed it. They must have chartered hot air balloons or something. This was, in some respects, a bit of a disappointment. An interesting experiment could have taken place – how much does the atmosphere affect the psychology of the footballer? Had it been played out in front of the television cameras and no-one else, it could have been used as the control for such an experiment. The sound of the distant shouts and the echoing boom of the ball baing captured by the microphones could have made for a curiously eerie spectacle, too.
It was three at half-time, and six by the end. It could have been twice or three times that number. None of this is a matter of overstating England’s brilliance. England played okay, stroking the ball as confidently as one would expect considering the clear blue water of ability and ambition between the two sets of players. Had Andorra shown any ambition we could have been onto something, but Robert Green remained a spectator for the entire ninety minutes. Green deserves more chances in the England goal, but he wasn’t given any opportunity to impress Capello tonight. England camped in the Andorran half, occasionally pinging the ball into the penalty area for the forwards to shoot at goal – sometimes concisely, sometimes wildly – and the biggest surprise of the evenng came with the fact that it took England twenty-eight minute of a pedestrian second half to score. If we’re looking for a lesson from this evening, the nearest that we might get to one could just be that. England are plenty capable of shooting blanks.
They’ve managed seven wins out of seven, then. One more win from their remaining three matches will put things beyond any mathematical doubt – handy, really, since their next two matches are against Croatia and Ukraine. There have been causes for concern throughout the campaign – Belarus’ equalising goal in Minsk, the laboured win against Ukraine and the flaccid opening half hour in Kazakhstan – but Fabio Capello can hardly be faulted for his record so far. Meanwhile, the press have only exceeded the amount of press about how good their chances of winning the World Cup are with the amount of press about how discussing how good their chances of winning the World Cup are is somewhat premature. Almost but not quite there, England have a lot of this nonsense to look forward to over to the next twelve months or so.