England’s Expectations Too High for Its Players

October 15, 2009, 10:16 AM

England’s John Terry, left, competed against Dmitry Verkhovtsov of Belarus on Wednesday night in London. (Tom Hevezi/Associated Press)

LONDON — On Wednesday morning, the start of a mild gray day, the final participant in the famous Fourth Plinth experiment in Trafalgar Square had her say. The experiment — Antony Gormley’s project allowing 2,400 people to spend an hour each on the plinth (a pedestal on which a statue usually stands) over 100 days — was eccentric, but it gave ordinary people the power to perform or preach in a great public space.

While others had railed against global warming or taken off their clothes, the final person, Emma Burns, a 30-year-old medical photographer, draped a Liverpool F.C. banner on the plinth and read out the names of the 96 Liverpool supporters who died in the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989.

The hundreds of people watching Burns end the plinth experiment broke into a spontaneous singing of the Liverpool supporters’ song “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It was a surreal, emotional scene.

Soccer is bred in the bone here. It was fitting and natural that this power-to-the-people experiment would end with a soccer story, a tragedy from the past. And then on Wednesday night England played Belarus at Wembley Stadium, in a game that was all about the future of English soccer. England achieved a scrappy 3-0 victory over tiny Belarus, and some possible team members for England’s trip to South Africa emerged, but it was a deeply unsatisfying, frustrating game to attend. All that talent in England. All that narcissism and confidence. All that money. All that English club success, and then this mediocre performance?

It’s the past — one World Cup triumph and many tragedies big and small — that is England’s burden. The World Cup victory of 1966 is fetishized here. At the World Cup in Germany in 2006 the English team wore replicas of the shirts worn by the triumphant 1966 team. It was 40 years later, the timing fit, and all that. And then “it,” the English cockiness, fizzled out, as it always does.

It’s Fabio Capello’s job to fix England, and he’s doing a good job. Even he, though, the cagey, terse Italian, must be dismayed by the quality of the players and the public’s extraordinary expectations. His job has always been to instill realism and discipline into his players, and now his job will be to persuade the great English public to have realistic expectations in South Africa. On both fronts he has his work cut out for him.

But at least he ensured qualification. England won 9 of 10 qualifying games. Mind you, it was hardly tested by European soccer’s great powers. The biggest threats came from Croatia and Ukraine, countries with teams in transition. Otherwise, England was up against the no-threat teams of Kazakhstan, Andorra and Belarus.

Still, it’s better than England’s failed campaign to reach Euro 2008. That ended with two losses to Croatia, one loss to Russia and a draw with little Macedonia. In truth, Euro 2008 was a better tournament because England wasn’t in it. And not just because England’s squad was truly mediocre, and its dull, plodding play would have lowered the tone. Without England, the world was spared a tsunami of coverage about David Beckham’s foot or Michael Owen’s groin. Because the English media is so large and relentless in its soccer coverage, if England is at a tournament, a lot of the twaddle enters the mainstream English-language media around the world, and it somehow looks as if England is more important than it is.

English soccer has reached its natural, second-tier level, a fact masked by the European Champions League club success of Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. All three teams are packed with great players, but from Germany, Portugal, Holland and Spain. The idea of the current England squad being an equal of Germany and Italy is farcical. Most players for England’s national team are overrated and overpaid but the news media here is over the moon about them. Most lack discipline, exceptional skills and cunning. Tellingly, few ever succeed when playing for European clubs. Some have done it — Beckham and Owen at Real Madrid. But most, one suspects, are simply afraid of the rigors of playing in Spain or Italy.

Capello has fixed some things. He seems to have hushed players who mouth off about striding to easy victory in South Africa. That’s key — some, like John Terry did a few weeks ago — spew optimistic nonsense and the tabloid press inflates it into a national fervor that is delusional. Capello prefers realism. This week, too, Frank Lampard talked about the player’s fear of Capello’s postgame analysis, his blunt anger and sarcasm about mistakes made on the field. Apparently Capello has “laser eyes” for mistakes. That’s the manager doing his job.

In public, at news conferences, Capello is an intriguing figure. He’s intimidating without being dramatic. You can tell that a fierce temper and impatience lurk under his low-key demeanor. He’s not a father figure or humorous in the style the English call matey — he’s the boss who hounds you at work to do more and do better.

And yet he can only work with the material handed to him. What was clear from that scrappy, meandering win over Belarus is that Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard are England’s best attacking players, the ones who can set a game alight and strike fear into opponents. There isn’t a defender from a top quality team like Italy or Spain who would worry about the skills of Peter Crouch or the young Gabriel Agbonlahor. On Wednesday Capello used that duo up front of a 4-4-2 formation, improvising as Rooney and Gerrard were injured. In fact he made six changes from the team that lost 0-1 to Ukraine a few days earlier. Stout-hearted Englishmen they might be, but worldbeaters they are not.

One suspects that a realist like Capello knows the strengths and weaknesses of England’s situation. Playing at home, England always looks a tad stronger than it is. Even two-thirds full, Wembley Stadium is an intimidating home ground when the supporters sing “Rule, Britannia!” On Wednesday members of the British armed forces, in uniform, carried the flags of the countries into the field. The warlike imagery and the belief in a glorious past can help to inspire some players.

For some national team managers, the crucial task is to inspire journeymen players into performing above their abilities when they put on the national team shirt. For Capello, the key is to acquaint some players with the reality that they are journeymen, not superstars. And that discipline and hard work bring victory. That’s a tall order in a country where soccer is bred in the bone and delusion is rampant.

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