PORT ELIZABETH – Apparently the much-needed motivation England so badly lacked, so badly thirsted for, came out of a glass.
A beer glass.
Make that beer glasses. Plural.
So says Fabio Capello, the English manager who, in a matter of one sun-splashed South African afternoon, transformed himself from dunce to genius in the eyes of his oh-so-fickle critics.
His team, thought to be on the brink of implosion and mutiny just 24 hours earlier, had just impressively defeated Slovenia 1-0, a scoreline that did not reflect the English dominance.
Suddenly, all those stories leading into the game of players guzzling suds and allegedly planning his demise, well, just didn’t seem relevant.
Except Capello wasn’t going to let them go. He was going to have fun with them.
Having just finished citing during his post-game press conference how his team had rediscovered its lost “spirit,” Capello was in the process of standing up to leave the podium when he decided to offer one final, unsolicited quip.
“Yesterday evening (the players) were drinking beer before the game. You can ask them,” Capello said, his usual stoic face having broken into a huge smile.
Imagine that. Fabio Capello can crack jokes.
And this just in: The guy can coach, too.
Leading into their “do-or-die” matchup with Slovenia, there were supposed questions about that. Allegedly from players. From selected media members as well.
But it wasn’t coaching that had left England with a pair of draws in its first two games.
In the opener, it was a brutal gaffe by goalie Robert (Hands of Clod) Green that caused England to settle for a 1-1 draw with the U.S.
In the second game, it was a case of the English players simply not busting their butts hard enough during a disappointing 0-0 draw with Algeria in Cape Town.
The fans weren’t booing Capello’s tactics when the final whistle blew that night at Green Point Stadium. They were jeering a lack of effort.
Good on ‘em for letting the chaps hear about it, too.
Effort was not an issue Wednesday. The English were the harder-working team, the more talented team, the hungrier team.
And, in the end, the victorious team.
“We had to win and we won,” Capello said. “I thought our team played very well. It played with spirit, the type of spirit we had in qualifying last year.”
Yes, it did.
And it also played with a new starter, Jermaine Dafoe, who proved to be the key to the game. Capello opted to insert Dafoe into the lineup for the struggling Emile Heskey.
Right from the opening whistle, Dafoe brought an energy to the pitch that seemed to infect the other starters. Finally, in the 23rd minute, his redirection of a beautiful cross glanced off the butterfingers of Slovenian goalkeeper Samir Handanovic and into the net, giving England its first goal in 197 minutes.
It was as if the weight of the entire country had been lifted off the players’ shoulders.
From that point, England played with the passion its fans expected. The passion the players themselves expected.
It’s a formula, midfielder Frank Lampard hopes, will lead to better times.
“We’ve seen it before where teams struggle at the start of tournaments and then come on strong,” Lampard said. “I think it’s a model we want to follow.”
For all the criticism they’ve received, the English still have yet to lose in this tournament, posting a win and two draws. In that time, the only goal they’ve allowed was Green’s blooper-reel muff.
Maybe these guys aren’t so bad after all.
Now, it’s on to bigger and better things.
Having advanced to the Round of 16, England next plays Sunday in Rustenburg.
And, if Lampard and Capello want to follow the same formula that led them to success Wednesday, there is only one thing to do.
Pints for all the lads Saturday night! Cheers!