Well, at least we now have half an idea of what Catweazle looked like when he was younger. Actually, the most remarkable thing about David Beckham’s beard – which was just about the most interesting thing about this routine win – is that it seems to be sculpted. It isn’t the beard of a man that no longer cares, for sure. There are patches on his chin that have definitely, definitely been shaved. It is a startling look, but whether it bodes will or well for England’s fortunes at the World Cup finals next summer is certainly open to question.
Even in 1974 (scientifically proven as the most hirsute year of the twentieth century), Paul Breitner clocked in as the hairiest player with a spectacular pair of mutton chops and a moustache. There are joint winners for the honour of being World Cup Winners With Beards. In 2006, Gennaro Gatuso was facially attired for Italy against France but, if we have to hand out an award, it can only go to Sergio Batista, who won the World Cup with one in 1986 and was also a runner-up with one in 1990. Moreover, this wasn’t the slightly self-aware style of beard favoured by Gattuso but the type that can only come as the result of one’s only contact with a razor in the previous couple of years being a disdainful glance whilst on a visit to a supermarket.
This group was, as you are probably aware, already over. England’s win against Croatia had guaranteed their place in the finals and Ukraine’s win against England had more or less knocked Croatia out. They had already sewn up the mathematics of it with a 6-0 win against Andorra earlier this evening, knocking Croatia out. This match had the feel of an end of season match for two teams with nothing to play for, too, which is exactly what it was. Fabio Capello, therefore, took a moment to experiment. Wayne Rooney (who is fast approaching the totemic status that we were promised he would hold when he first appeared in the scene five or six goals) had picked up an injury during (or perhaps afterwards, considering that he didn’t leave the pitch at the end with an injury at the end of it, after) the Ukraine match, which meant that England started with the less than inspiring duo of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Peter Crouch up front. Dunga and Vicente del Bosque were probably watching with amusement rather than trepidation.
Yet within four minutes, Crouch was inside the visiting penalty area doing his patented impression of a broken weather vane, and scoring with the sole of the little toe on his left foot. After this, business resumed as normal. England dominated possession, and Belarus threatened sporadically. The first half ended with score still at 1-0. The second half was, praise the lord, a little more exciting. England doubled their advantage thirteen minutes in when Shaun Wright-Philips shot in from the edge of the penalty area, and with fourteen minutes to play Crouch added a third from close range. Sometimes you can’t help but wonder whether it is a misjudgement to snigger at the sight of Peter Crouch in an England shirt. He has scored eighteen goals in thirty-five appearances now, and you cannot help but wonder whether, when he is brought on as a substitute or thrown on because somebody else is injured, opposing defenders find themselves involuntary thinking, “well, what the hell is THAT?”.
The other main experiment of the evening was Capello’s decision to start Ben Foster ahead of David James in goal. James played pretty well on Saturday and might have expected to start tonight. However, Foster is – with varying degrees of patchiness – now playing something like regularly for Manchester United (which makes him, by my reckoning, the first English goalkeeper to do so since Gary Bailey and Chris Turner did in the late 1980s), and this in itself is bound to raise the eyebrows of an England coach, especially when considering the paucity of his other options at present. He did reasonably well – he looked a little nervy on a couple of crosses but made one outstanding one-handed save in the second half – but the decision to play him would seem to indicate that Capello prefers Robert Green as his first choice goalkeeper, which is probably the wise decision notwithstanding his sending off last Saturday.
Anyway, from now on the rigorous analysis of every single iota of information that can be found out about Fabiello Capello will begin in earnest. Next up for England is a curious match against Brazil in Qatar in four weeks time. This is something of a no win fixture for them. If they lose, the sky will cave in again and if they win the pleasing dampening of expectations that came about after Saturday’s defeat to Ukraine will be erased from the memory and the tiresome talk about how England will win the World Cup will start again. Still, at least they’re in the finals to start with and, after the events of two years ago, that’s a start.