The problem with England

JAMES LAWTON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:00 AM ET

PRETORIA - It is not enough that Thomas Muller devastated England's World Cup with two clinical goals and a performance of such maturity that it was almost impossible to believe he was still several months short of his 21st birthday.

As he prepared yesterday with his German teammates in the hope of inflicting similar pain on Diego Maradona, who earlier this year mistook him for a ball boy, he was asked to analyze the English football problem.

His response was quick, almost casual but it might still have been fired from a gun.

The bushy-haired boy from Bavaria, who played his first senior football this last season, said: "I think the English have so many top stars they will always be part and parcel of the international scene. But they have so many Alpha males it is difficult to have them row in the same direction.

"You don't just need chiefs, you also need Indians. That may be a problem with England. Are the players willing to go that extra mile for their teammates?"

The question is no doubt already engraved on the heart of Fabio Capello and his pain, surely, would only have deepened yesterday had he crossed the rolling, sun-bathed veldt to visit a German camp that seemed to ooze with well-being before Thursday's flight to Cape Town and the quarter-final challenge of stifling the brilliance of Lionel Messi on Saturday.

Capello would have heard his German opposite number Joachim Low -- who from today is operating without a contract -- repeat once again the most basic ground rule of his nation before every World Cup.

There is, says Low, "one thing for sure: No Germany team ever goes into a tournament wishing to go through one phase or other. We aim to win the competition, but we're ambitious with a touch of realism thrown in."

Most hauntingly, though, Capello would have seen the poise of the precocious Muller and the tough, veteran's swagger of 25-year-old Bastian Schweinsteiger, a powerful midfield leader now in his second World Cup and barely older than the "babies" of the dismissed England squad -- James Milner, Aaron Lennon and the un-used Joe Hart.

Both Muller and Schweinsteiger clearly believe that facing the exquisite forward skills of Argentina is not some unfathomable ordeal but another inevitable challenge for any team intent on serious business.

They know they will face extraordinary virtuosity and also, no doubt, some severe provocation. That was the lesson of Germany's shoot-out victory over Argentina in the quarter final of four years ago.

Schweinsteiger spoke of his vivid memory of the violence which broke out moments after Germany's triumph. "There is a clear difference between the two teams in their approach to the game," he said. "We were attacked out of nowhere by the Argentina players. This we have not forgotten.

"One fact we cannot forget is that they have improved a lot. It means we have to play at our highest level and not be provoked in any way. I hope the referee will nip in the bud any such efforts from Argentina. We must not be lured into responding. Look at the half-time break in their game with Mexico. Argentina fans got together in one block, forcing other fans to go elsewhere. That shows they are self-confident asserting their rights -- and non-existent rights."

Schweinsteiger is exultant about the degree to which Germany have forced their way, yet again, into the centre of a World Cup stage. "There are good teams here, outstanding ones, and when you ask me to name the best players so far in the other teams, I have to say Juan Sebastian Veron is one of the best for Argentina. But if I have to single any one out it is Iniesta of Spain, who has superb qualities. There is also Van Bommel for the Netherlands."

Muller is so composed he might be chatting with friends over a cup of coffee in a Munich café. Four years ago, when his team-mate Schweinsteiger was winning his rite of passage against the Argentines, he was with friends in a Bavarian beer garden. "It was a fan fest and we were all overjoyed when (Miroslav) Klose scored an equaliser and we forced our game on Argentina.

"I do not worry about the violence that came at the end of that game. Certainly I will not mind a 'scramble' if we beat them again, but we will not tempt our opponents into hitting us. We will try to beat them at football."

Muller agrees that there might be a lesson for the English game in the way he and his gifted, 21-year-old team Merzut Ozil have been swiftly brought to the heart of the German effort.

"I don't know how many young players England have to come through but what has to be understood is that you need a team that works as a team. In our team, younger players are more willing to play second fiddle, subordinate their own agendas for the team as a whole. But England has to find its own solutions. I can't sit as judge and jury."

Last Sunday in Bloemfontein, however, he was of course happy enough to play the role of a merciless public executioner. As he did so, he announced himself a classic young German footballer, tough-minded, versatile and, most significant of all perhaps, sharply intelligent.

"I have been happy to play any of the roles given me," he said. These include spells on both wings, as second striker and as an advanced, creative midfielder. In one season he became a fixture in the Bayern Munich team, winning the German league and cup and appearing in a Champions League final. On Sunday, he became the youngest World Cup player to score more than one goal in a game since the eruption of the teenaged Pele in Sweden 52 yeas ago -- and the youngest German in any game since Franz Beckenbauer.

"Since last August, everybody keeps talking about my rise in football coming so quickly, but I don't think about that," says Muller. "I just work on my game. I block off anything that could be irritating or distracting. How do I deal with my rise? I'm a sober kind of guy. I keep my feet on the ground."

Maradona certainly did not make any great contribution to the lionization of Muller after Argentina's defeat of Germany in a friendly in Munich in March. He marched off when he found himself listening to the prodigy discussing the game with the German press -- a decision of media officials who were aware that many Argentine journalists were yet to arrive in the press conference. The great man muttered about the indignity of sharing the stage with a "ball boy."

"I don't know whether he knows me now," said Muller, "but seeing him again will not be any trauma. Maradona pretended to be offended by my presence but I think he was only joking. Obviously, he has done good work with Argentina's spirit but I'm too young to know him as a player. My only concern is to keep the feeling we had after beating England. For me, the game was the icing on the cake of a fantastic season. But it doesn't stop here. I would love it to go on."

Muller, they say, is Germany's football future. But he is also their past. Yesterday, on the high veldt, it was once more vibrantly alive.

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


Videos

Photos