The dust has settled on England’s excellent performance against a disappointing Croatia at Wembley seven days ago. England’s five-star, five goal effort against a team who, less than two years ago, were considered the Three Lions’ nemesis-in-chief, secured World Cup qualification with two group games remaining.
It’s easy to get caught up in hysteria around the England football team. No sooner had the final whistle blown and journalists, pundits and fans were speculating on just how far Fabio Capello’s squad can go in South Africa in the
summer of 2010.
I don’t think we can draw any firm conclusions from the qualifying campaign. Many teams have dominated their groups in qualification only to flop in the finals. England in the 1988 European Championships immediately springs to mind. But England’s performance last week did provide firm evidence of the squad’s improvement under Fabio Capello and the methods the Italian has employed to get the most from his squad of highly paid superstars.
Capello described England’s performance in the first 30 minutes of the Croatia game as “perfect”. He praised his team’s passing, work-rate, pressing and movement. Contrast this with the nervous ineptitude of the same players under Steve McClaren against the same opposition two years before. Thanks to Capello, England are now a cohesive unit with a team ethos. Each player knows his role, understands his responsibilities and realises that any dip in performance will see him dropped. In short, Capello has made playing for England a privilege that must be earned and the players have responded.
Equally important is Capello’s relationship with his players. Unlike McClaren and Sven-Goran Erikkson, he has no interest in being their friend. He stands apart as their boss and his respect must be earned. After the final whistle against Croatia, skipper John Terry bounded towards Capello looking to put the Italian taskmaster in a celebratory bear hug. Don Fabio’s reaction? A simple, business-like handshake on a job well done. The England team is no longer the cosy club headed by JT, Stevie G and Wazzer or the better-to-be-lucky-than-good Eriksson regime where David Beckham received preferential treatment.
The dramatic two-year turnaround in the team’s fortunes has also confirmed one my own pet theories concerning the England team namely that there are just a handful of coaches able to successfully manage an elite group of English players. With wages and egos way out of control, any sign of weakness or ineptitude from an international manager is going to make these players switch off. Put it this way: who do you think has the gravitas and experience to make them listen and work? A man whose greatest achievement was to reach the UEFA Cup final and get thrashed or the man who has won league titles in Spain and Italy and a couple of European trophies to boot?
Aside from Capello, only Mourinho, Ferguson, Wenger, Hiddink and, at a stretch, Guardiola and Lippi, appear to have what it takes to command the respect and attention of a group of England players.
That aside, with qualification in the bag, what can we expect next summer? Anyone who tells you England will win the World Cup is a liar or at the very least a well-meaning optimist. England’s strong qualification puts them in a group of contenders trailing favourites Brazil and Spain. They number one of five or six teams who could win it if things go their way.
But predicting anything more than that is fanciful. And here’s why. Rooney, Gerrard et al are firing on all cylinders now. Next summer, they will have at least 60 more games in their legs. If recent seasons are anything to go by, most of England’s stars will see late season action at the latter stages of the Champions League. Come the World Cup, some will be knackered while other might not even be fit at all.
Secondly, there’s no telling how these players will respond to high-pressure situations. Can England win a game if they are reduced to ten men? How will they react if they fall victim to a chronic refereeing blunder? And what on earth will happen if the dreaded spectre of the penalty shootout appears on the horizon?
Capello’s England have not had the opportunity to answer these questions yet. We’ll only find out in South Africa. Yet, just two years on from McClaren and the most recent nadir of the England national team, Capello has instilled belief, passion, pride, skill and effort back into this side. Right now, expectations are rightfully high. Come next summer, we will be among the contenders. As for winning the World Cup, let’s be quietly confident, leave the WAGs at home and see how far this team can go.