England have their team back – now for the real test


World Cup 2010: round of 16

After a sluggish start, England rediscovered their spirit to reach the last 16 – but bigger challenges lie ahead

Paul Hayward in Rustenburg

The Guardian, Friday 25 June 2010

Fabio Capello 006 England have their team back – now for the real test

  • Fabio Capello’s team selection, with James Milner on the right wing, was the foundation for England’s improvement. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

From the relief of Mafikeng in 1900 came a new word: to maffick, which means to celebrate unduly. A 1-0 win over Slovenia and a cack-handed group campaign that has left England facing knockout ties against Germany and possibly Argentina would be scant cause for exultation had Fabio Capello’s men not stumbled so close to oblivion.

England are warm favourites to beat their old dance partners in Bloemfontein on Sunday. Patriotism’s vuvuzela makes bookmakers deaf to a frightening historical reality. The English have got their team back here in South Africa. Where they went, no one knows. But they are back now, properly arranged and energised, though short on goals; back to be reminded that they have not beaten a major power in a World Cup knockout round since West Germany in the final in 1966.

Sunday’s game will not be played in the court of precedent. No game ever is. These narratives are unscripted. Capello, though, will not want his players to think too deeply about this persistent anomaly. Since 1966, when they beat France, Argentina and the West Germans to achieve world domination, England have been beaten in knockout games by Brazil, West Germany and Argentina – all twice – as well as Portugal four years ago in Gelsenkirchen.

The feeling grows, despite this pattern, that England are more likely to soar against Germany at the weekend than they would against Ghana in Rustenburg. This theory comes over as wishful thinking, except that England’s campaign has come alive while Germany’s started radiantly but then hit complications. The idea is that England have remembered who they were in qualifying while Joachim Löw’s team may be thinking they have oversold the German renaissance.

“What is the feeling – relief, the boys want to do so well,” Joe Cole says. “People misunderstand. We live it 24 hours a day and we want to do so well. For whatever reason, it didn’t work [against USA and Algeria] but we are always there and I believe we can do it.”

Cole added: “I believe in the team and the manager. We are right behind him and if everyone believes we can do it, I really genuinely think we can.”

In this passage is all the pent-up indignation of England players who now want us to believe that what we saw in Rustenburg and Cape Town was a bad hallucination.

From sack-the-lot-of-’em to yes-we-can is a lurch familiar to students of tournament football. In fact, tournaments would be lost without the redemption schtick. They were designed to throw the emotions around. They bring false dawns and rotten starts and unexpected recoveries. England confront opponents who have built a national tradition on advancing through the rounds so quietly that you would hardly know who they were until they jogged out for the final.

“We just wanted to win the game and show some passion and aggression,” Cole said. In other words, apathy was off the menu of available responses to Capello’s call. Down one road lay the minimum acceptable outcome: qualification from the group stage. Down the other, so soon after the failure to reach Euro 2008: the end of England’s credibility in international football, such as it is, given their inability to reach the final of a tournament for 44 years.

The best reason for thinking England would progress from Group C, then, was that scorn would have rained eternally on this generation. They roused themselves as an exercise in ignominy-avoidance. Capello’s choice of a better-balanced team, with Jermain Defoe on song and James Milner eclipsing the flimsy Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right, was the foundation for the escape. But if the restoration of English “spirit” was Capello’s most desperate aim, the warrior urge returned because the players knew respectability was the least they could take back to London, Manchester and Liverpool.

They were sick of being kicked around by public opinion, and probably tired of the gaunt, bored faces that stared back at them from the mirrors of a training camp that is now more relaxed. If Capello was mining better memories in the hope that one would spark England back to life, he can be sure these players have plenty to dig from. Some of them tend towards the dismissive (“I haven’t seen anything at this tournament to worry me,” John Terry said, way too early) but all will know that German football no longer daunts them, even if it should, thanks to the Champions League and its capacity to educate.

Of course, a more terrible prospect looms beyond Bloemfontein: that of Diego Maradona’s Argentina, assuming they beat Mexico. The fist that punched a ball in, in Mexico 24 years ago, would now love to punch the English nose. At World Cups you have to maffick while you can. The ordeals come in gangs.