There is a sense of foreboding in the air in England, ahead of Saturday’s European Championship qualifying match against Wales in Cardiff. It’s not a sense of fear – the players, at the very least, carry too much arrogance for fear to be a major factor where the English national football team is concerned – but there is a sense, almost intangible, that something still isn’t right in the England squad. After a dismal World Cup in South Africa last year, the team had a reasonably solid start to their qualifying campaign with wins against Switzerland and Bulgaria, but the fragility of rebuilding confidence amongst the media and supporters was perhaps best demonstrated by the response to a torpid draw against Montenegro and a friendly home defeat by France.
To an extent, this is a no-win fixture for Fabio Capello. It’s difficult to build a case on form that Wales can or will beat England, but an undeniable feeling continues to hang in the air. There was no grand clear-out after the World Cup finals – there is too much of a paucity of talent amongst English players for that ever to have been a serious consideration for Capello – and most of the familiar faces, whether they are on the downward spiral of their careers or not, are still present and correct. There is still something missing at the heart of the England team which all of the pomp and bluster that seems to surround any mention of them can only barely mask. Should they loser on Saturday, that mask will slip completely and open season will begin again.
The big story from an England point of view this week has been – apart from barely-suppressed delight and relief at the injury which seems certain to keep Gareth Bale out of the Wales team at the weekend – the issue of the captaincy. John Terry, of course, has been reinstated to the job of England captain in place of Rio Ferdinand and it is a decision that makes a degree of sense. Terry is one of the least likable players in the squad, but Ferdinand has been injured for much of this season and there is considerable conjecture that he will not play again this season. Terry is a highly experienced player and seems to have the hide of an elephant, which isn’t necessarily an completely admirable trait but a least shelters him from the constant abuse and criticism that he faces.
But is the role of the captain all it’s cracked up to be? It often feels as if other nations don’t consider the role to be as critical as some sections of the English media and support seem to think it is and, it has to be said, there are plenty of other national teams that have won major trophies since England last did. Perhaps there is an element of militarism about it all. After all, the English have never been slow to revert to the language of the trenches when it comes to discussing football. At international level, however, the players should hold a sufficient degree of experience to not need to be implored to work harder by a large man standing behind them wearing an arm-band and the blood vessels bulging in his neck.
For those on the inside of the game, it probably does matter. For the player selected, the financial inducements for being The England Captain can be highly lucrative whilst, for the FA’s marketing department, the captain is a useful tool to have, at least he is for as long a time as he is behaving himself. When John Terry was believed to have been found to not be behaving himself, he was stripped of the role. That decision, it feels, was unlikely to have been taken on account of what the effect of his alleged behaviour might be to the players on the pitch. Indeed, even the name “Captain” could be said to have a faintly archaic ring to it. The military captain is the link between those in charge and those in the trenches, and the war-obsessed English media loves this sort of thing.
It has been a quiet week for England. The stories coming from the Welsh camp regarding Gareth Bale’s injury and Aaron Ramsey have stolen many of the headlines this week. This might have suited the squad, and it seems as if the fuss that blew up over the captaincy last week has already subsided. Yet, England remain vulnerable. It’s still considerably less than a year since the World Cup finals saw them dumped from a tournament by a German team that was technically and physically so far ahead of them they they might as well have been playing a different sport. That match, in its one-sidedness, may have had something of the one-off about it. It hinted, though, at a deeper malaise within the English game with regard to international football, and this malaise may take years to be cured.
On a good day, the England team is solid – not a million miles from stoic – and they have players that are capable of the occasional moment of brilliance. On a bad day, however, they are plenty capable of playing as if they only met in the tunnel before the match. Either England could turn up in Cardiff on Saturday afternoon. They could win comfortably or they could well lose. No matter what happens, though, we can be reasonably certain that John Terry’s performance as a defender will be more important than his performance as captain, and that is a straitjacket that English football has yet to break free from.
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