RUSTENBURG -- There may not be a whole lot of room left in the storehouse of certainties owned by coach Fabio Capello but we can be sure of a few after England’s less than emphatic opening statement here on Saturday night.
One is that he will select goalkeeper Robert Green for Friday’s game with Algeria in Cape Town only at the risk of a crushing blow to his reputation for utterly unsentimental judgment.
Professionals who have traveled as far as Capello in the game make the dodging of such a prospect not so much a rule as an article of faith.
It means that having been burned once by his faith, albeit tortured, in Green, he is unlikely to invite full-scale incineration by ring-posting the decision that unravelled so devastatingly for the goalkeeper when he allowed the United States back into a game from which they should have been routinely expelled.
However much he bleeds publicly for Green, all of the England coach’s deepest instincts will insist he moves on, most likely by handing the job to the inexperienced but currently vibrant Joe Hart.
Almost as certain, surely, is that he will accept, as so many before him have been obliged to do, that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, giants at the European club level, are forever doomed to be two beautiful football people who simply cannot make a workable marriage.
Finally, and potentially just as crucially, he will no doubt be questioning whether Liverpool veteran Jamie Carragher, for the all splendour of his defensive acumen and competitive character, is any longer quick enough to provide a solution to the sickening accumulation of the problems in the middle of defence that saw Rio Ferdinand’s replacement Ledley King cut down by still another injury.
Tottenham’s Michael Dawson, raw like Hart but also filled with the conviction that he has moved on to another level of performance in recent months, is now looking the most viable partner for John Terry.
There is one more reality that Capello is sure not to have put aside. It is that even if he privately concedes selection mistakes to which he would no more admit publicly than he might adopt Diego Maradona’s promise to run naked in the streets, he will neither concede nor believe that what happened here represented some killing blow to England’s prospects.
The briefest inspection of Slovenia’s 1-0 victory over Algeria yesterday, one driven like the American tie by serious goalkeeper-error, will have told Capello that England’s chances of winning Group C have been touched by no more than a flesh wound.
There is also the not inconsiderable value of perspective which is available almost randomly whenever you trace the emergence of putative champions over the course of a few weeks.
England, who have won only five of their 13 opening games, provided one of the most encouraging examples of growth through the tournament when they won it for the only time in 1966. The Ramsey team was booed off Wembley after an 0-0 draw with Uruguay and acquired their first serious momentum when Bobby Charlton scored a goal of transforming brilliance against Mexico a few days later.
For the moment at least, it would certainly be a perverse reverse of the usual English tendency to over-state their chances to believe at this early point that all serious hope of a significant impact here has already been extinguished.
History insists that the majority of winners, and those who run them most closely, do not first appear trailing clouds of glory. They come with apprehensions or disappointments about this or that. They have heroes lurking in the shadows and often coaches half-crippled by critical disdain.
One of the most dramatically vindicated, Italy’s Enzo Bearzot, was spat at in a Spanish street before delivering a sensational victory in 1982. But in the flush of victory, it was written of the one-time, pipe-smoking pariah, “Not only did Bearzot win the World Cup, he set free the sweet, caged bird of Italian football.”
The chance of such lyrical praise soon washing over Capello did not look so likely here when he was surrounded by a media scrum sniffing, perhaps, a little blood, and demanding some public atonement for a series of “mistakes.”
“I made no mistakes,” said Il Capo. “We are talking about football. I am happy that we made the chances to score seven goals.”
Yes, he would say that, all coaches have in their time, and when Capello was being examined it was not hard to recall that quite a few of them had been spectacularly vindicated alongside Bearzot and England’s own Sir Alf Ramsey 44 years ago.
Which way will England go now?
They will qualify from the group, this much we know. What happens after that rests in the ability of Capello to accentuate his strengths, which include most notably such figures as Wayne Rooney and Gerrard, the latter having already proved against the Americans that he is capable of scoring the kind of goal with which Charlton enlivened his nation and his team so long ago.
One certainty is that Capello will see it is ridiculously early to believe that his cause is already lost. Winning coaches do not happen by way of such thinking. Nor do most World Cups.