Cup pressure getting to England
By JAMES LAWTON, For QMI Agency
England coach Fabio Capello (right) speaks with captain Steven Gerrard their match against Algeria at the World Cup. (REUTERS/Darren Staples)
JOHANNSBURG -- English football is thrashing around in serious self doubt right now, and nobody surely can be surprised after the abject showing against Algeria in Cape Town on Friday night.
However, it is running a little deeper than mere angst over one shocking example of under-performance from players such as Wayne Rooney and Steve Gerrard who are supposed to operate at least vaguely on the same level as the man of this tournament, Lionel Messi.
No, the worry is not simply that England's form has broken down. The concern is that its whole culture has become dysfunctional.
The fear was probably provoked by the demeanor of Rooney after the game, especially when you consider that he has possibly never played so poorly at any level of the game since he emerged, a snub-nosed warrior, from the backstreets of Liverpool.
Given the pressures of the World Cup, and the huge national expectation that has been placed on his shoulders after a superb season with Manchester United, nobody expected him to slip into a sackcloth of ashes. However, his reaction to a ripple of boos from England fans, which were neither unexpected nor excessive in view of the costs and logistics of their trip to the southern tip of Africa, spoke of something rather more than mere irritation.
Referring to protests from the crowd, he asked, "What the f--- was all that about?"
For roughly 36 hours, the nation, not to mention his near-demented coach Fabio Capello, has been trying to explain.
One strong strand of criticism comes with the perception, right or wrong, that Rooney and some of his $200,000-plus-a-week superstar teammates are having some difficulty in meeting the challenge of operating in training camp and submitting to the demands of a man whose hugely successful career as both a player and coach is based on the Italian belief that becoming a professional footballer is a privilege as well as an achievement.
Capello, who orchestrated a superb qualifying campaign, spent most of his time in the Sea Point Stadium in a state of extreme agitation. He was appalled at the breakdown in England's rhythm and basic technique. When he was asked if he would resign in the event of his team failing to beat Slovenia on Wednesday and suffering elimination he sighed, hugely, and said, "it is too soon to speak of that." However, he added, "Tonight, it was an England team I did not know."
For the nation, it was perhaps a little more familiar.
When England were ejected from the last World Cup in Germany, captain David Beckham handed in the armband and broke down in tears and Frank Lampard, a star for Chelsea in club football but one of the worst performers in Friday's meltdown, complained that the team had been treated with a lack of respect by the public and the media. This may have had something to do with the fact that suddenly his autobiography, and those of some of his higher profile teammates, was lying in great forlorn piles in most major book shops.
It could just be that England rally itself against Slovenia in Port Elizabeth and win by a sufficient margin to top the group.
However, it should not brace themselves for a vast show of national celebration. A little relief, perhaps, that the reputation of English soccer, so inflated in the past, had avoided its greatest humiliation since defeat by the amateurs and part-timers of the U.S. in the Brazilian mining town of Belo Horizonte in 1950, but still the odds are that Rooney's question will be turned back on him.
What it was all about, we have to conclude, is disgust and disenchantment and the most serious speculation so far that England stars have become far too rich and complacent for anyone's good. Meanwhile, most eyes will be on the iridescent and plainly committed Lionel Messi.
James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.