Let the wailing and gnashing of teeth begin. Actually, it has well and truly begun already. England are heading home from South Africa, heads bowed, and the media left to rant and rave about six million-a-year Fabio, his 23 overpaid superstars, and the failure to raise their game beyond plain ordinary.
Had they beaten Germany yesterday, we’d have been hailing it The Greatest Thing Ever. We’d have declared a national holiday; streets would have been named Capello Way and Gerrard Gardens (Wales already has Barry Island); bunting would have adorned every dwelling; the Cross of St. George would have flown from every rooftop south of Hadrian’s; and our glorious tabloid press would have fizzed with glee in trotting out the usual slew of lame and lazy taunts echoing events of 70 years ago.
Instead, there is castigation and retort, rumblings and retribution about Uruguayan incompetence, FIFA intransigence, and managerial stubbornness. Oh, and not to mention the fact the ball was too round, amongst an ever-lengthening list of excuses that fail to accept that, simply, England weren’t up to it.
Refreshingly, it is the German press who are enjoying themselves the most: “Now we are quits,” snorted Die Welt, reflecting ongoing Teutonic nark about some linesman’s error 44 years ago. Others, benevolently, even went so far as to suggest that a refereeing blunder meant the result was meaningless. Alas, sweet sentiment, but of little consequence. The better team won, point.
Who knows how long the English grizzling will last this time: probably longer than a Garth Crooks comment. As the knives sharpen for Capello’s inevitable discussion with the FA (ergo, another expensive failure heads off to lucrative pastures new) England fans are left to lick their wounds.
To be honest, we shouldn’t feel wounded. Embarrassed, yes, but nothing more. The game against lowly Slovenia not withstanding, England’s brief appearance at this World Cup was mostly poor. The game against a spirited United States should have been the kick in shorts they needed. Apparently not. For what followed became etched in footballing lore – for a few days at least - as The Worst Football Game I Have Ever Seen™. Except it wasn’t. Worse was to come. And it came in the form of a showdown against the exotically-coiffured Joachim Löw’s team of young Jäger.
Defensive blunders were coupled with ineffective attacking which, in turn, was marred by the inflexibility of a system and a coach who refused to budge and change things when it was needed. Joe Cole may not have been the fittest player on the bench, but his effort, commitment and, if nothing else, his open-mouthed lolling, would have made something of a difference, somewhere.
Lampard’s goal-that-wasn’t may be the focus of some ire, but really we should have no complaints. England really had no expectation of going all the way at this World Cup. Yes, we all dreamt it [again], some even thought it possible. Yes, they qualified fairly (please note M. Henry), but they weren’t exactly convincing during the run-up (“shouldn’t worry, they’re only friendlies, they don’t count”). Blind faith always prevails when it comes to England.
England, like the uppity French and the gravitationally challenged Italians, flattered to deceive yet again. Rooney failed to live up to his Player of the Year accolade and not even the goal-that-wasn’t did anything to help Lampard’s reputation as arguably the best midfield engine in the world…er...when he’s not wearing an England shirt.
But it would be wrong to single out individuals. Whether they played badly or were played badly, it’s a team sport, and the team failed to live up to reputation, let alone expectation.
I hope our collective hubris has been dealt a fatal blow by this result. I’m glad the nation got behind the team; I’m glad the pubs were full and the supermarkets empty; I’m glad houses and cars alike were proudly flying the flag. But really.
To use my favourite footballing prefix, at the end of the day we just don’t know. “Football,” maintains Danny Baker, “is chaos”. You can’t predict it, you can’t pre-program it. You just have to endure it.