JOHANNESBURG - It’s all very well saying that England has the man to beat the world in Wayne Rooney but nobody can really do that, not on his own and not even Diego Maradona when you get right down to it.
Not when one disaster is piled upon another as swiftly as was here Saturday night in the 1-1 draw with the United States, which is to say as quickly as the night swoops down on the high veldt.
Suddenly, Rooney and his teammates knew that they had two huge tasks. One was to beat a United States who had made an impressively spirited response to an early setback. The other was to hang on to what was left of dwindling credibility as serious contenders for this 19th World Cup, challengers who might just ride home on the sheer virtuosity of the Manchester United striker.
Rooney faced though a handicap that wasn’t thrust upon Maradona, the player who no doubt came closest to achieving the mythic task of carrying his team on his back en route to the highest peak in world football. Back in 1986 Argentina’s goalkeeper didn’t let the ball roll softly into his net in a way to demoralize any defence, especially one already straining under some not inconsiderable heat.
Unfortunately Rooney’s teammate Robert Green did it here last night and suddenly the superb momentum England created with a fourth-minute goal by Steven Gerrard was in ruins.
It may not be the end of the road for England, a 1-1 draw the United States (they opened their winning campaign of 1999 with a goalless tie with Uruguay and were booed out of Wembley) but this was a serious blow to the idea that they are serious rivals to the likes of Brazil and Spain.
Rooney’s reaction was to surge away from the centre circle in a manner that seemed more than anything like a fit of rage and the American defence had to scramble desperately to, as they say in their parts, head him off at the pass.
Rooney’s intensity of effort did not slacken, indeed there were some moments when he seemed about to unfurl extraordinary pieces of virtuosity, once thrillingly when he signalled to Ashley Cole and broke into open space to receive a through ball.
The conception was stunning in its speed and its vision, but the execution failed by a fraction. As the game began to dribble away, he sent one shot swirling just wide of the post from 20 yards. He delivered an exquisite pass to the feet of Shaun Wright Phillips, who shot against the American goalkeeper Tim Howard.
This was an impressive response to the possibility that once again his World Cup ambitions had been entrapped by frustration.
The blows came in quick succession. James Milner had recovered from sickness but his performance was nightmarish and when he was cautioned for an abject display of frustration in a late tackle on Steve Cherundolo, Fabio Capello called him off and sent on Shaun Wright Phillips.
It seemed to have worked despite the American menace most impressively represented by the big, quick Jozy Altidore.
England were steadier, more composed and Emile Heskey was again proving again that if he can only fire blanks in front of goal he can certainly load up the gun and pass it to Rooney under the most vigorous of physical attention.
The crisis might indeed have passed if Green hadn’t created the moment that will haunt him forever, when a tame shot from Clint Dempsey bounced out of his rigid hands and trickled over the line.
When the goalkeeper walked off the field at halftime, his face was an object from which most of England surely felt obliged to avert its gaze, not in rage but sheer erupting sadness.
A fine, brave goalkeeper who appeared to have won his battle over rivals David James and Joe Hart with a rising graph of form coming into the tournament, his place in the next game is surely at risk now. Hart is a young goalkeeper of impressive form and untouched by the kind of experience which tore down Robert Green last night.
It is just one of the dilemmas facing Capello now, however. He has to attend again to the failures of Frank Lampard and Gerrard to produce the joint effect which, individually, Gerrard made seem like a formality when he stroked home England's goal so beautifully.
The chances are that he will continue with Heskey alongside Rooney. He will remember, you have to believe, those moments when he kept alive the theory that his teammate might indeed beat the world. It will, though, be something of an act of faith.