I know I’m not the only one who isn’t really looking forward to the World Cup.Â But your reasons will be different from mine. I don’t enjoy tournaments which feature home nations – too tense, too much hoopla. And I enjoy ones with only England in even less – the loneliness leaves them even more exposed than they already were. Oh, to be in 1998, in the summertime, with a beer.
There have been so many World Cups now, and they aren’t getting better. This is to contrast them both with the Olympics and the European Championships. World Cup piles onto World Cup and each one squashes flat beneath the last like the ingredients in some kind of ever-accumulating Double Whopper.
Scotland aren’t there, of course, and Craig Levein gets his tenure off to an unpromising-sounding start against the Czech Republic having had almost no time to gather his thoughts. He should, if he keeps things calm and relatively quiet, steer Scotland into a play-off place without too much trouble. His successors ten years down the line will have an easier time of it: this is the muddy bottom of Scotland’s lean period, and it’s Levein’s unenviable task to steer the team out of it.
The England situation is depressing for different reasons.
This is still Ericksson’s 2001 team in many respects. John Terry and Wayne Rooney have arrived, but – and this is just astonishing – with the sole exception of David Seaman, every member of the starting XI, and two out of the three substitutes, is still a regular Premiership player or playing in Serie A (or Owen Hargreaves would be, barring injury). Scholes and Carragher have retired from international football, sadly, and Nicky Barmby is no longer considered a serious candidate for selection. Otherwise, it’s very much the same names.
When you consider that 5-1 squad absentees Lampard and Barry had both made their England debuts prior to the Munich game, it becomes clear that for the core established squad, 2010 is the last chance to win an international trophy. I think 2004 and 2006 were the years for these players. It’s probably too late now.
Always with the injuries, England. Terry’s back problems, Ferdinand’s back problems, Ashley Cole’s broken ankle, Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott, Glen Johnson, Joe Cole, Michael Owen.. Owen might not have been a major candidate for the plane, but this point is not about him. It’s about the way England have gone into tournaments with what would be a very serious team, if fit, but one in fact hastily recruited from the squad’s unfashionable outer regions. Sometimes it can work – Danny Mills was an effective stand-in for Gary Neville in 2002, and.. no, there weren’t any successful stand-ins in 2004 and 2006, were there?
Too many front pages: say no more, really. All that started with Lampard and Terry at the airport a week and a day after Munich (because the core of this team have been around more or less since the foundation of Blogger) and there’s usually been something or other on the boil ever since. Frankly, were the UK press less nosey, prurient and possessed of such peculiar priorities, we’d neither know nor care. But it’s still depressing.
The fringe players: I wish I didn’t count Jermaine Defoe in this bracket, but he’s only two years younger than Michael Owen, and the gap between the careers of the two men – to say nothing of other members of the squad – is impossible to ignore. His Spurs partner Peter Crouch is a little over a year younger than Owen, and the same comments apply. The main hope has to be that Defoe and Crouch continue on this dream-like season of theirs (surely the one which will define them) and carry all that confidence into the World Cup. And Crouch is no certainty to travel.Â Injuries have robbed us of what might have been a thrilling season-long duel for Beckham’s spot on the right wing between Lennon and Walcott: all we can hope for now is that one or other of them is fit. Let’s skip over the goalkeeping situation.
The Good News: Carlton Cole has grown up, and is a kind of prozac every time one reflects on what’s happened to Michael Owen. Tom Huddlestone, but he’s injured, of course… And Capello doesn’t seem to understand the idea that England might perform less well when essential players are missing. It’s the kind of blind spot I don’t remember an England manager having in the past, save for Ericksson during his early, experimental line-ups (Chris Powell – remember his nutmegging Guardiola?).
No, the real good news is this: barring something from left of field, the rebuilding England will need to do will be done by Capello, whose contract, let’s not forget, continues until the end of the European Championship in 2012. Who, given how consummately well he has done so far (I called him a “More Than Mind Games manager” when he was appointed, and he hasn’t let me down) would you rather have the job?