On Friday night in Cape Town, the England 2010 World Cup team played as if they had passed into the spirit world. All but invisible, they made an absolute mockery of their pre-tournament hype (which, in spite of everything that we know about know about them and the realism of the ordinary, everyday supporters, ended up as high in the media as it always does). Since then, the distinct impression coming from their Rustenberg headquarters has been of a group of players that is desperate to pin the blame for their shortcomings on just about anybody but themselves. Wayne Rooney has apologised for his comments on Friday night, but he can consider himself likely that, in the torrent of future chip wrappers that have poured forth over the last three days or so, his half a dozen or so words will be drowned by those of The Man That Would Still Be Captain: John Terry.
Terry’s press conference yesterday morning already seems likely to be the defining moment of England’s story at the 2010 World Cup finals. It could be overshadowed by a colossal turnaround on the pitch, but expectations of those at home are now so low that it seems almost inconceivable that this team will be able to arrest their fall from grace against Slovenia on Wednesday afternoon. Furthermore, it now feels as if a growing number of English football-watchers no longer even wants the team to scramble their way through the group stages of the competition. Heaven knows the England football team is unpopular enough already, but somehow Terry has managed to find a way of making them even more so. You’d have suspected a Machiavellian plan if it had felt as if any planning had actually taken place.
His words, however, weren’t quite subtle enough to carry anything genuine of the dark arts about them. However, they were straightforward enough to be torn to pieces in the press within hours, yet oblique enough to make the neutral think, “If you’re going to slate the manager, at least do it with the same amount of panache as Nicolas Anelka did”. Terry has been indulged for years at Chelsea. He saw off Jose Mourninho and Avram Grant, after all. His words seem to betray a belief that he could also see off Fabio Capello, and he may yet do. Capello, one of the genuinely great coaches in the modern world game, could be more than forgiven for thinking, “Bugger this for a game of soldiers” and disappearing in a Milanwardly direction as soon as this tournament is over. Few would blame him, though such a decision would be a massively retrograde step for the England team.
Ironically, one of Terry’s key requests has started to feel less likely for the simple reason that he requested it in the first place. There is, on balance, a case to be made for the inclusion of Joe Cole in the England squad. The matter of whether he should play or not now runs the risk of becoming a matter of principle now, though. Any decision to play Cole will carry a subtext far beyond mere footballing matters, and the irony is that the most likely loser in this eventuality will be Joe Cole himself. It is far from unreasonable to suggest that Capello is certainly no more likely to pick Cole as a result of Terry’s outburst. To this extent, both Capello and Cole have been put in a near impossible position by his words. Playing Joe Cole against Slovenia is no longer, if you will, merely a matter of playing Joe Cole against Slovenia any more.
Some of his other comments don’t merely border upon the ridiculous; rather, they run straight through that particular demarcation line with their arms flapping and their tongues lolling. His comment that, “I personally think that him [Joe Cole] and Wayne [Rooney] are the only two in the side who can really open things up and be the key to breaking down defences” seems to indicate that he wasn’t even paying attention to England’s opening two matches of the tournament, during which the only significant goal-scoring chances fell to Steven Gerrard (who scored inside four minutes against the United States – how long ago does that feel now?), Emile Heskey and Frank Lampard. Now, each of those players have their limitations, but Rooney hasn’t scored for England since last September and Cole has only scored ten goals in fifty-four appearances for his country. Regardless of this, to make such a blanket statement as this makes no sense. How might the likes of Gerrard and Lampard have taken such a comment? What exactly did that do for “team unity”?
John Terry would do well to remember that, in spite of the way in which he may still regard himself, Steven Gerrard is the captain now, but it is this in itself that may be the root cause for his pique. Being stripped of the England captaincy in the first place was the sort of embarrassment that Terry is not exactly used to. Could his outburst be linked to the fact that he was overlooked in favour of Gerrard when Rio Ferdinand had to drop out of the squad through injury a couple of weeks ago. Surely Terry wouldn’t be so stupid to admit as much publicly, but it remains a possibility. He left himself open to criticism in saying that, “there are things to do around the training camp – mini darts tournaments, snooker and pool. But a bit of boredom kicks in. It’s six or seven hours until we meet up for dinner again”, after all, and this has been interpreted by many as if he believed that the World Cup finals would be a pleasant holiday with a couple of football matches thrown in.
Most likely, however, much of this is all so much press filler. The players will likely continue to beat their chests whilst passing the ball around themselves monotonously before conceding possession. They may fall through into the knockout stages and they may even turn in a performance that surpasses our diminished expectations of them. At this precise moment in time, however, there is very little expectation of anything even approaching greatness from England at this tournament. The only people that can change this in an actual, tangible way are the players. However much there is or isn’t in talk of “coups d’etat” or “mutinies”, nothing can disguise that basic fact. If they are in a tactical straitjacket, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect such a generation of superstars to break out of said jacket. It seems unlikely that anybody would mind if they did and were successful. If they can’t, however, perhaps the truth of the matter is that they weren’t particularly deserving of that status in the first place.
And perhaps the English – the players, the media and the supporters – need to readjust their expectation levels. It is over half a century since England, having made the finals of the World Cup, last failed to get through the group stages of competition. There is no automatic right to as much as a place in the World Cup finals itself, never mind the last sixteen of the competition. On the basis of what we have seen so far, better teams than England will be knocked out of the competition at the first hurdle, even if England get through. Perhaps the fact that England haven’t had to suffer an ignomious first round exit of the World Cup since considerably before the introduction of decimal currency in Britain, man landed on the moon or The Beatles recorded “Love Me Do” has inflated our sense of entitlement when it comes to the World Cup finals.