Football: it’s a head game

As yesterday’s victory over Slovenia showed, England are a different team when they can play without fear.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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England: champions or chokers? It’s a peculiarly English trait to lurch from unfounded optimism one week to wrist-slashing self-flagellation the next. If we beat Germany on Sunday night we’ll start planning the open-top bus parade. But, should we lose, then Capello will be pilloried and we’ll burning effigies of the players. We don’t do perspective over here.

Until England secured qualification by beating Slovenia, English football had, to use Capello’s phrase, been ‘in a bad moment’. The manager’s extended honeymoon ended abruptly when the players were booed off the park by their own fans after the insipid 0-0 draw against Algeria last Friday.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the fear of failure that characterises our national sporting psyche. Fear of missed penalties, fear of Rooney rage, fear of broken toes. These anxieties resurfaced time and again in the build-up to the World Cup. What none of us anticipated was that England’s finest would suffer from stage fright on the big occasion. Who saw that coming? A glittering cast of superstars playing like strangers: indecisive, incoherent and utterly incapable of passing the ball. ‘What I saw from the English had very little to do with football’, said Franz Beckenbauer, somewhat mischievously. Harsh, but true. It was like a sudden case of collective amnesia. The entire England squad seemed to have forgotten how to play football.

How can this be? How can a team that sailed through qualifying play like a Sunday pub team? How can the self-belief, which Capello had instilled, suddenly drain away? In the post-mortem after the abysmal performance against Algeria, Capello endured all kinds of flak. His boot-camp regime, his man-management style, his team selection, his formation – everything that seemed to serve England so well in qualifying had suddenly become a problem.

Many England fans had initially been delighted by Capello’s disciplinarian approach. A bit of hardship? Bring it on. That’s just what those pampered brats need. That was the general consensus at the time. But, as England’s performances in South Africa faltered, those very privations imposed were seen as a problem. The players are bored, we were told. They need to be allowed to relax a bit more. Is this really plausible? Did England players really play so badly against Algeria because they were missing their WAGs and mobile phones? I can’t see it myself. And if it was true, if English footballers really can’t cope without their creature comforts for a few weeks, they need locking up on Robben Island.

What about Capello’s tactics? Was it a mistake not to name the team until they were just boarding the team bus? Was Robert Green under-prepared for the USA because he didn’t know he was playing until a couple of hours before kick off? It seems a fairly lame excuse to me. All squad members need to be mentally prepared before a game. Even if they don’t start they should be ready to come off the bench if needed. Green’s howler against the USA wasn’t Capello’s fault. It wasn’t the Jabulani ball’s fault. It was all down to Rob Green. He screwed up.

And what about the formation? Was Capello’s formation at fault? During the Algeria game, ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley suggested that the 4-4-2 system was to blame. ‘How many of these players play 4-4-2 for their clubs?’ screamed Tyldesley without a trace of irony. Really, Clive? Did you really mean to say that? Or did the twaddle just spew out before you had time to think? Admittedly Capello’s system is more like a 4-2-3-1 with the second striker sitting deeper. But, nonetheless, the notion that English players are uncomfortable with 4-4-2, a system that most have them had been weaned on, is patently absurd. Capello’s formation served England well during the qualifiers so it’s ludicrous to blame the same system for the team’s disjointed performances.

Capello has admitted to making mistakes, but the only explanation for the wretched performance against Algeria is that the England shirt weighs far more heavily on our players than their club shirts. The self-belief that they possess when playing for Chelsea or Manchester United is simply not there when they pull on an England jersey. The players, in short, looked paralysed by fear. ‘This is not the England that I know. I didn’t see any spirit of the team in this game’, said a bewildered Capello afterwards. ‘It reminds me of when I first started as England manager. I saw the same fear when we played at Wembley.’

Football is all about momentum. The early goal against the USA calmed nerves and England played with confidence in the first half. They could quite easily have been two or three goals up by half-time. However, Rob Green’s howler changed the whole psychological balance of power. The USA started to believe. England started to doubt. If England had taken their chances in the second half, the momentum would have shifted again.

An early goal against Algeria similarly would have calmed nerves and the players would have been a bit more relaxed and less error-prone. But the longer the game progressed the more nervous England became. Invariably they played poorly, unable to string two or three passes together. They weren’t just playing the Algerians, they were fighting the demons inside their heads. They were haunted by self-doubt and the ghosts of past failures. In the circumstances, a scoreless draw against the combined forces of Algeria plus the dead weight of past generations wasn’t such a bad result after all.

Self-belief, or the lack of it, will decide the outcome of the second-round game against Germany on Sunday. The Germans have always possessed loads of self-belief. The English have made an art of heroic failure. Will things be different this time? Do the England players believe they can win? Do they fear the Germans? Can they put the ghosts of the past out their minds? Will they hold their nerve if the game goes to penalties? Football is, in the words of Bill Clinton, a ‘head game’. The game will be physically played in the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein. But it will be won and lost in the players’ heads.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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