England faces tough test next

England's Frank Lampard and Ashley Young celebrate one of their team's five goals against Moldova...

England's Frank Lampard and Ashley Young celebrate one of their team's five goals against Moldova on Friday. (AFP)

JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:20 PM ET

England’s journey to another veil of tears — aka the World Cup finals — started in an obscure corner of the old Soviet empire on Friday night with a resounding, headline-stirring 5-0 win. The only trouble was that Moldova looked rather flattered by their world ranking of 141, which puts them one above Kazakhstan and one below the island of Malta which has a population of slightly less than 400,000.

Still beggars — and this is surely the status of England at the top end of international football despite their surreal ranking just behind Spain, the masters of world soccer, and the perennially serious contenders Germany — have to be grateful for the smallest glimmerings of hope.

England’s new manager Roy Hodgson was, understandably enough, grateful to be able to recognise a few of these after performances by such youngsters as Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Manchester United’s Tom Cleverley that would surely have been eye-catching in much more strenuous circumstances.

However, a more serious guide to England’s rehabilitation after a grimly familiar shoot-out exit at the hands of Italy in the quarterfinals of the European Championships in Kiev a few months ago will come at Wembley on Tuesday night, when Ukraine will plainly be capable of reproducing some of the alarms they created while largely outplaying Hodgson’s men in a group game at the Euros.

The deeper fear, though, is that whatever the success of the new qualifying campaign — Fabio Capello’s team did it almost imperiously before the 2010 World Cup finals which brought such misery — the end of the road will bring still more evidence that England have lost the capacity to compete in any major tournaments with anything like serious intent.

It was thus an inevitable question team captain Steven Gerrard was required to address on the eve of the brisk little work-out in Moldova.

Can we win the World Cup in Brazil? Gerrard’s answer had to be rated among the more superior side-steps of his career. He said, “I’m realistic and honest. At the moment we’re not one of the favourites to win the World Cup. That doesn’t stop you believing and working hard to improve and learn from mistakes youíve made at previous tournaments. This team has every chance to improve and get better in the next few years with players coming through and those players with experience. We have to have that faith. In football, miracles do happen.”

In the meantime, Hodgson can only choke on a series of statistics which explain why England have run so far behind such European rivals as Spain, Italy, Germany and France at the highest level of the international game.

The details of decline are stark enough but at various stages of the slide there is surely an overwhelming need to review them once again.

Since England’s only taste of international glory in the World Cup 46 years ago, the Germans have won the tournament twice and reached three more finals. They have twice won the European title. The Italians have won a European title and two World Cups and two more finals. France has won two European titles and one World Cup. Spain has won two European titles and one World Cup on the way to conquering modern football.

There is, of course, no mystery in England’s separation from such achievement. It is the price of the most fundamental neglect of young England players, one that this week was underlined by the release of another set of nightmare figures. They tell us that of the 209 players who started in last weekend’s action for Premier League clubs — including the 11 of Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup — only 66, or slightly more than 30%, were available to Hodgson.

In Germany the issue of a proper quota of home-grown players in the domestic league is already causing alarm. However, even though the Bundesliga trails La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1, it is still 19% ahead of the Premier League.

Not surprisingly, the Spanish masters of world football are most fastidious about grooming the best of their young players at the highest possible level. The Spanish percentage is 64.3. Ligue 1 is at 62.7 and Serie A finds room for 52.1% of the compatriots of such as Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini.

These figures speak not of seeping neglect in England, but something that amounts to an astonishing abandonment. When the Premier League was formed 20 years ago, one justification would be a new emphasis on the health of the national team.

The League would ultimately be trimmed to 18 clubs. The quality would be refined. The future brimmed with promise.

It is a story of betrayal that apparently knows no bounds and certainly it didn’t find one in Moldova this week when Gerrard, having exhausted other possibilities, found himself summoning a miracle. It is unlikely to happen until the power brokers of English football find time to take a peek into the mirror.

James Lawton writes for The Independant in the U.K.


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