June 14, 2012
Air miles take toll on England
By JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency
KIEV - It is not encouraging that the English, heroic, pragmatic, new inhabitants of the real soccer world -- by all means take your pick -- were too drained to train two days before Friday's pivotal group game against Sweden, which they have never beaten in a competitive game.
There was also a little more of some old angst when on the same day the Germans -- whose international record has become an almost unbroken reproach to English failure -- had rarely look stronger or more willing to run an extra yard.
But then England's discomfort is hardly a gob-smacking surprise when you consider their ludicrous arrangements.
Their opening game Monday night against France, a gutsy 1-1 draw in such oppressive heat that the mere lifting of a vodka and tonic might well have brought on a few more extra beads of sweat, required them to make a round trip of 1,644 miles.
Their opponents had a rather less arduous one that -- both ways -- took scarcely half an hour.
This also gave the French the advantage of a week of acclimatization in the often brutally extreme weather of eastern Ukraine, which during the past few days has been as much as 50F hotter than at England's base in the beautiful Polish city of Krakow.
Friday's game for England involves a mere two-way jaunt of 694 miles but then it is also the true the Swedes, having all their group games in Kiev, took the astonishingly wise decision to set up their camp not only in the same country as the venue for their games but, wonder of wonders, in the same city.
If the English logistics are weird, they were given another perspective by the Germans, who quite imperiously put down the Netherlands on Wednesday night to maintain a perfect start to their attempt to win their seventh major title, having previously won three World Cups and three European titles.
Before the draw was made, Germany secured first refusal on the finest training facility in Eastern Europe and one of the best in the entire soccer universe, the Kirsha Centre, which has superb accommodation, nine training fields, eight of them natural grass, a network of physiotherapy and medical recovery rooms or, to put another way, everything a first-class sports outfit would need if it had serious intentions of winning a great tournament.
Furthermore, it is not much more than a long stone's throw from the Donbass Arena where England has been drawn to play two of its group games and a possible quarterfinal. Naturally, when you think about it, the French moved in tout de suite the moment they heard the centre -- built by Rinal Ahhmetov, the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk, who after acquiring most of the industrial wealth of the Ukraine would now quite like to possess one of the world' great teams -- was no longer required by the Germans.
So what, you might ask if you just arrived from another planet, could England's location so far from the Euro front line possibly be about. It is, of course, about creating an agreeable ambience for highly paid professional athletes who simply cannot stomach the idea of being imprisoned for more than a few days somewhere exclusively designed to create that zone of tunnelled concentration and high-level physical tuning which generally accompanies the highest achievement.
Fabio Capello tried it in South Africa two years ago and you might have thought he had borrowed the idea from the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition.
Initial reports from Krakow were favourable. The atmosphere was relaxed, they could mingle with the tourists and the fans and, well, it was so much more stimulating than those aching views across the bare veld.
It's a pity about the travel fatigue and the heat exhaustion, of course, but you can't have everything, if you decide the only way to operate is on your own terms. This, we have known for some time, has been the culture of English international soccer. Sven Goran Eriksson slipped into it cosily enough, permitting family enclaves and bouncy castles at the 2004 European tournament in Portugal and allowing a full-scale Wag operation in Baden Baden two years later during the World Cup.
When Capello took his players to the Alps and then dumped them in the middle of African tribal lands he was derided for not understanding the needs of his players and the demands of the game, which must have been a little surprising for a man whose own playing career included four Serie A wins with Juventus and Milan and 32 appearances for Italy.
Now it seems England's new manager, Roy Hodgson, has inherited some middle ground, no Wags, no right to summon the manager from his dinner table -- the fate of Eriksson on one fraught occasion -- but a training headquarters in the swim of city life and a more or less acknowledged right to squabble about whom you most like to play with and whom you don't.
Meanwhile, the Germans continue to be as hard on themselves as any opponents. Before their perfect two-match start to this tournament they won in England in 1996 and appeared in three of the past five finals, coach Joachim Low spoke of the extraordinary intensity of his young team. "They were good in South Africa two years ago but they are so much better now -- the young players have matured so well and the moment they appear with the squad you can see their intensity, their ambition. They are so much stronger and mature. In so many situations their strength and understanding has become automatic."
The idea of such unity might seem like a fantasy to Hodgson who spent so much of the build-up to the team's arrival here dodging questions about why he decided to leave Rio Ferdinand at home. One unsettling image of this week's training meltdown was of Ashley Cole angrily kicking away a water bottle. For England, happy camping is plainly not the easiest chore.
It is hard to the point of painfulness to contrast the picture Germany continues to present of a team focused on the challenge. In South Africa, they got through some of their spare time by accepting their adoption by the kids of a local township. Thomas Muller, an emerging star, spoke of new horizons, new experiences.
There is also the more familiar one of charting a route back to the top of the game. It is one, we can be nearly certain, that is not likely to involve a 4,000-mile commute to play three big games in the space of nine days.
Inevitable is the kind of controversy which challenges the unity of any team, and most recently involved captain Philipp Lahm's ruthless ambition to succeed aging predecessor Michael Ballack. There is also the taut rivalry between world-class strikers Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose but then we are talking about the sharp edge of pure ambition.
Friday night England not only has to rally its legs. The players have to grasp quite how much ground has to be made up.
James Lawton writes for The Independent in the UK