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More pussycats than Three Lions

England are out of a World Cup they should have won. But don't just blame Sven – what about the players?

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Politics

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England’s exit from the World Cup on Saturday left a nation of football fans demoralised. This was the best chance for England to win a major tournament in a very long time, and yet they fluffed it.

It’s easy to see why in the run-up to the tournament there was cause for optimism. England had, on current form, three world-class players: Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney. On top of that there were two other players who have been rated among the best in the world at one time or another (Michael Owen and David Beckham), a broader group of talented individuals to call on, and a miserly defence (which conceded just two goals in five games, both of them self-inflicted). Where did it all go wrong?

The press has, unsurprisingly, pinned the blame squarely on the coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson. Sven never managed to produce a way of playing that got the best from the team. He seemed excessively cautious; he was too keen to operate by consensus, which, given the enormous coaching staff and the role of leading players, led to systems which were always an uncomfortable compromise to keep everyone happy. When he did finally impose a system on the team, with Rooney playing out of position on his own up front, it was a miserable waste of our best player.

Perhaps most galling was his decision to bring just four strikers, two of whom were unfit, plus a lanky target man with a poor scoring record (Peter Crouch) and a teenager devoid of Premiership experience who was never likely to play (Theo Walcott). If England had made the semi-finals, with Owen gone and Rooney suspended, who would have played up front?

However, the tone of some of the post-match discussion seemed to suggest that this would all be okay if only Eriksson hadn’t been paid so much money or if he’d been English. This line was pursued by Sunday tabloid the News of the World, which has made a project of exposing Eriksson as a self-serving, money-grabbing mercenary. To that extent, the Football Association (FA) has to take responsibility for the fact that it stuck with him for so long – and that its members are such big mugs that they will be continuing to pay Eriksson handsomely for the next two years even though he’ll be working elsewhere.

On the other hand, the players themselves have to take responsibility. It would have been better if Rooney hadn’t got himself sent off and succumbed to a blatant attempt by the Portuguese team to wind him up, most notably in the antics of his club colleague Cristiano Ronaldo. Alan Shearer’s comment that he wouldn’t be surprised if Rooney ‘sticks one on’ Ronaldo at their first Man United training session was not so much a prediction as a suggestion, one the whole nation nodded along with. But Rooney’s sending off didn’t make much difference to England’s performance: he was so isolated that England were effectively playing with 10 men anyway.

More importantly, the star players didn’t perform. Lampard, whose claim to fame is as a goal-scoring midfielder, didn’t score any goals. Beckham may have been responsible in part for three of England’s six goals in the tournament, but his much-vaunted delivery at set-pieces was often awry. Rooney was really only fit for two games, and Owen never looked fit and got injured again. Only Gerrard and Joe Cole played to anything like their capabilities, while it was fringe players like Hargreaves and Lennon who enhanced their reputations.

The lesson of previous tournaments is that winners generally emerge in response to the problems thrown up as the tournament progresses. In 1966, England won without their best striker (Jimmy Greaves), with Hurst emerging as the hero. In 1974, West German coach Helmut Schön gave up the ghost after losing to East Germany, with Franz Beckenbauer effectively taking charge – and leading them to victory. In 1982, Paolo Rossi – only just playing again after a betting scandal – went from zero to hero with a hat-trick against red-hot favourites Brazil. And Maradona won it for Argentina in 1986 practically single-handedly.

No English player took control of the situation in 2006. None performed to the best of his ability or grasped the nettle after the initial insipid performances. Until a player or players develop the courage to stand out as a figurehead, England’s potential is always likely to be wasted.

And chaps, if you could avoid the current fashion for bawling your eyes out in defeat it might help to convey the impression that you have some backbone. What would Kipling have said? No wonder we always bottle the penalty shoot-outs.

But one piece of doom-and-gloom should be dismissed forthwith. This is not the end of the ‘golden generation’. Only Beckham and Gary Neville of the current first team will be too old to play at the next World Cup. Playing in the South African winter in 2010 might suit England better, too. Next time, let’s have a little less carping and a bit more carpe diem.

Read on:

spiked-issue: World Cup 2006

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