BLOEMFONTEIN — Let the recriminations begin.
The blare of the final whistle had barely faded when English media and fans began picking at the England corpse.
As the horde of media shuffled down the stairs Sunday at Free State Stadium following England’s humiliating 4-1 defeat at the hands of Germany, one of their soccer arch-rivals, speculation began about what happened to a team that was the No. 3 favourite to win the World Cup. Would England manager Fabio Capello remain of his own volition or would he be dismissed immediately? Was Wayne Rooney healthy? And what happened to the English backline?
There were six flights of stairs to be negotiated so there were actually many more questions in the offing. But those ones made a good start.
England’s dismissal from this tournament was thorough and uncompromising. It may have suffered a little at the hands of the officials but what it suffered at the hands of the Germans was far worse.
England managed to score a goal to tie the game 2-2 before halftime but the Uruguyan officials did not confirm it.
Capello felt that was the turning point.
In truth, teams that are ready to win a World Cup respond to that kind of adversity. England didn’t.
Germany was better.
The Germans exploited England’s lack of pace and creativity. They punished England for every mistake and, considering the number of young players manager Joachim Loew brought to the World Cup, gave England a glimpse of what might happen when the two teams meet over the next few years.
So what did happen to England?
How could a team that had one of the best qualifying campaigns for the World Cup come to this tournament and perform so miserably. A tie with the United States, a tie with Algeria and a narrow win over Slovenia preceded Sunday’s horrifying hammering.
There were no great revelations to some of the problems. They were obvious to anyone who watched England.
Key players failed to perform. Instead they looked disinterest and tired, incapable of adjusting.
England continued to play the same style regardless of what it needed to do.
It lost a point when Robert Green committed a huge blunder against the United States. It’s lost another point by failing to show any desire against Algeria. As a result, England couldn’t avoid a second-place group finish and a meeting with Germany.
Rooney, a man who had to perform like the best striker in the world, was miserable on and off the pitch.
With Rooney not scoring, the England defence came under even more scrutiny and Capello never did get it right.
Against Germany, John Terry and Matt Upson were repeatedly ripped apart.
When England was desperate it resorted to kick and chase, a questionable tactic at the best of times.
The rest was a question of timing.
If this tournament had been held a year ago, England might have won -- that’s how well it was playing.
But a year later its players have gone off the boil. Some have struggled with injuries while others have struggled with personal problems that have kept the tabloids busy with lurid headlines.
This World Cup comes at the end of a long, hard season for most of the England players and it showed. They looked worn out, unable to sustain long periods of energetic play, and were lumbering rather than gliding like their counterparts.
Capello must also take some of the blame.
Up until this World Cup, everything he touched turned magical. It was rare that anyone questioned what he did and why he did it.
But he fell into a trap many coaches fall into. He went with players who were successful for him over his two-year tenure. He made some risky picks, including players who were injured.
Capello refused to chance injecting new blood in an England team that desperately needed it, needed not only the energy of youth but some of its new skills as well.
Considering the high hope this England squad had coming into the tournament, the failure was catastrophic.
More painful for England is seeing how German football has not only kept pace over the years but improved.
We can focus on how poorly England played but that would do disservice to the Germans.
They were a joy to watch.
If Michael Ballack had not been hurt before the World Cup, he probably would have been a starter even though his best years are behind him. That would have prevented wonderful players like Mesut Oezil and Thomas Mueller from seeing a lot of playing time.
As painful as it was for England, it’s a lesson worth learning.