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The beautiful game, and the blame game

After ugly wins over Paraguay and Trinidad, Sven is devoting his energies to thinking up (rubbish) excuses for England’s poor performances.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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We’re not robot dancing anymore. Almost as soon as it had begun, Crouch fever was put on pause. Funny that.

As soon as England’s latest national icon – the lanky Peter Crouch – came up against defenders who could actually be bothered, his feet of clay were exposed. The Paraguayan defenders might be midgets but, unlike the Jamaicans in the pre-tournament friendly, they deployed crafty Machiavellian spoiling tactics such as marking and tackling. No surprise then that Crouch didn’t get a chance to perform the robotic dance against Paraguay last weekend.

It is often said that he has ‘great feet for a big man’ but Crouch missed a sitter with those same feet against Trinidad and Tobago yesterday. And when he finally redeemed himself by scoring with his head, he had the good grace not to perform the jerky celebration, having called a temporary halt to the silly dance routine. ‘The dancing was a bit of harmless fun at first that seems to have escalated a touch,’ said the Liverpool striker. ‘It is not about doing robotic dances. It is about scoring goals and winning football matches and I know that more than anyone. We are at an important time now.’

Crouch says that the dance might be resurrected if England win the final with the whole squad, including Sven, joining in. But after the unconvincing performances against Paraguay and Trinidad the prospect of a mass bodypopping celebration in Berlin on 9 July still seems quite fanciful right now. The streets and cars in England might be bedecked with St George flags, and England have qualified for the knockout stage, but the national mood is far from euphoric.

Of course, it’s the results that count and all that, but there was something profoundly dispiriting about watching England labour to overcome two lesser opponents. The game against Paraguay was something of a signature England performance: start at a high tempo, nick an early goal, run out of steam, sit back, concede possession and give the ball away cheaply. Same old England. The victory against Trinidad wasn’t much prettier, nor was it any more convincing. Regular readers of this column will know that I’m a great advocate of winning ugly. But these wins weren’t merely ugly, they were looking-glass shatteringly minging.

It was little surprise that, given England’s lack of any cutting edge, Wayne Rooney has been pressed into action sooner than expected. Such are our overblown expectations of Rooney that he managed to dominate England’s World Cup campaign by his very absence. England fans have been praying that Rooney could step off the treatment table and immediately transform England from unimaginative plodders into sparkling world-beaters.

However, although Rooney looked lively against Trinidad, it would be churlish to imagine that he is as ‘match fit’ as Sven claims after a six-week lay-off. You only have to look at Michael Owen, who has a few games under his belt since recovering from his metatarsal injury, to see that physical fitness is not the same thing as match fitness. Owen’s ineffectual displays in the two opening games have exposed the utter folly of Eriksson’s decision to leave Jermain Defoe out of the squad.

The big question that is exercising England fans now is not ‘Can we win this thing?’ but ‘What excuse will Sven use when we get knocked out?’ The wrong type of ball? Dodgy pre-match bratwursts? Loud frogs outside the hotel…er, wait a minute, the Ukrainians have already claimed that particular gripe. If the performance against Paraguay was poor then the excuses were even worse. ‘The heat knocked us out at times’, said Sven. ‘It was hot, like facing Brazil in Japan.’ When you consider that Sven has had four years to prepare for the World Cup, is this really the best excuse he can muster? Sven will have to do a whole lot better if England do have to take an early plane home.

One excuse that Sven cannot recycle is that the Premiership season is too taxing. This year the domestic season ended a week early to give England’s players more recuperation time. Nor can he trot out the classic Glenn Hoddle excuse that we didn’t practise penalties because England players now routinely practise spot kicks in training. However, we clearly haven’t been practising excuse-making. Complaining about the heat is really very feeble indeed. Of course England can’t play a high-tempo game in searing temperatures, but are we really to believe that these players are incapable of adapting to the conditions? After all, we are continually told that this is the best generation of English footballers since 1966. Surely it can’t be beyond our ‘golden generation’ to string a few passes together when it’s hot?

If Sven’s excuses are as predictable as England’s second-half disappearing acts in big tournaments then I fully expect, at some stage, to hear the time-honoured complaint about over-fussy foreign referees penalising good honest English physicality. It was used when Alan Shearer elbowed the Argentine goalkeeper in the throat in 1998 and again in 2004 when Urs Meier disallowed Sol Campbell’s ‘goal’ against Portugal after John Terry had impeded the keeper.

It’s a bit of a journeyman excuse, the Geoff Horsfield of excuses one might say, but it does a job. The ‘overprotective foreign ref’ complaint had a brief run-out in the Paraguay game when Peter Crouch was cautioned for persistent arm-flailing when jumping for the ball.

I don’t know whether bookies are offering odds on England’s World Cup excuses but, unless there’s another refereeing outrage, the smart money would have to be on Rooney’s foot. We started to get our excuses in early this year as soon the wunderkind crocked his toe. And although there was a national clamour for Rooney’s return, I can just see England fans complaining that he was rushed back too early or that a dirty foreign defender stamped on his toe.

So if England don’t get to do the collective robot dance, forget the failure of the golden generation to deliver – a tenner says the crocked metatarsal gets the blame.

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Topics Politics

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