History, doubts weigh on England

JAMES LAWTON for QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:09 PM ET

BLOEMFONTEIN -- Downtrodden workers have long been exhorted to tear off their chains because it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.

So Fabio Capello, the $12 million-a-year coach of embattled England, might just care to dust down the old rallying call here Sunday when his team's and his own reputations will be given their fiercest examination since he took office, part football man, part messiah, after a catastrophic climax to a European Championship qualifying campaign two years ago.

It is something Capello might do with a degree of belief because no-one, with the possible exception of the potentially luminous Spain and the departed champions Italy, has underperformed so drastically here over the last few weeks.

It appears to have developed a massive inferiority complex, though their heaviest critics would claim they don't have a complex, just inferiority.

No doubt England feels oppressed by both the weight of history and its own doubts when it faces its long-time nemesis Germany but neither problem should prevent it reaching a quarter-final of near, but not quite certain, death against Argentina.

Diego Maradona's team is exploring a football dimension of its own at the moment but it is doing it with less than an iron guard in defence and if all goes well here England may just draw a little benefit from the sense that it has not much left to lose.

The brutal truth is that a team who were numbered among the favourites, however optimistically, when it arrived here a few weeks ago, has shed much if not all its reputation as authentic world-class performers.

This afflicts no-one more than Wayne Rooney. He came here numbered among the headliners, Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta and Torres, but it was an elevation which appears to have had the effect of the most callous of handicappers. That is the bad news that is proofed against any level of varnishing. However, the good news is that Rooney may have touched rock bottom in the second game against Algeria in Cape Town and can only come up. Though far from his best, he was much sharper and more involved this week in Port Elizabeth in the win over Slovenia and it could just that he will be further liberated by the success.

The bad news may just be rendered old news if Rooney can justify the German fears that he is still the man most influential in any England performance.

Franz Beckenbauer, the great figure of German and European soccer who won the World Cup both as a sublimely sophisticated player and coach, certainly tempered his doubts about most everything to do with the current English football culture with the caution that if Rooney makes anything like a run into the afternoon sunlight, so might England.

It was a statement that underlines a basic truth of today's game. It is that while Germany have already shown it has at least some of the nerve and the fortitude of its predecessors and a skilled, exciting prospect in 21-year-old Mesut Ozil, it does not have anyone in the class of Rooney. This is also true of Steven Gerrard in his ability to make an explosive impact.

Rooney, particularly, is feeling a terrible backlash in England. Arrogant, over-rated and impostor are some of the words being thrown at the 24-year-old from Liverpool in the wake of his disappointing, goal-less performances.

It is true enough that he has not been conducting a charm offensive here but over-rated? It is a nonsensical claim. Rooney is the most naturally talented footballer born in the British Isles since the ill-starred George Best and Paul Gascoigne. When he is right in his head and his body, and disturbingly there was fresh evidence in the game at Port Elizabeth on Wednesday that he may still be struggling somewhat in both departments, is not ridiculous to suggest that he has the potential, Messi and all, to be a challenger for player of the tournament.

That claim could hardly be less fragile right now but, still, the Germans are right to continue respect, maybe fear him.

The suspicion here is that England will win today and move into the jaws of Argentina substantially because of Rooney. This will make England a new team and Rooney, maybe, just maybe the old player who spread a little terror wherever he went.

James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.


Videos

Photos