If neutral and even partisan observers thought that England looked out of sorts in their two opening Group C encounters with USA and Algeria, they would have found full agreement with Fabio Capello. The 64-year-old coach, who has won no fewer than eight league titles in Italy and Spain, was amazed by his team’s inability to transfer their displays on the training pitch into high-pressure situations.
In many ways, he likened it to the attitude in the dressing room when he first took over from Steve McClaren following the Three Lions’ failure to qualify for UEFA EURO 2008. Back then, he spoke of the players’ ‘fear’ of playing at Wembley – and in many ways that fear manifested itself once again in Rustenburg and Cape Town, as they took just two points from a possible six. However, all that changed in Port Elizabeth as England defeated Slovenia by a single goal to book their place in the last 16 and set up a confrontation with old foes Germany. The Italian has seen a collective burden being lifted from the shoulders of his troops and now believes that they will play with a renewed sense of freedom.
“Confidence is really important, particularly here at the World Cup,” Capello told FIFA.com. “Without confidence, it’s impossible to go forward. If you play with fear, it’s impossible to play well, it’s impossible to score goals and it’s impossible to find the mentality you need to defend well. Whenever you play in a tournament like this, you have to be compact; you have to be really, really strong as a unit. The players have always trained well, but they have been more relaxed after the win. They have always trained like England and now a few days ago [against Slovenia] they played like England. Against USA and Algeria, they weren’t the same team which I know, but things have changed. We played very well, created a lot of chances to score goals and now the spirit of the team is really showing.”
At the press conference at the Free State Stadium on the evening before the game, skipper Steven Gerrard backed up his manager’s sentiments in words and actions. Often targeted by the British media for looking tense and inhibited while on England duty, the 30-year-old cut a calm figure during the pre-match preliminaries. The Liverpool midfielder has a 100 per cent record against Germany, appearing in the 5-1 victory during qualification for the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ and as a second-half substitute in the 1-0 win at UEFA EURO 2000, the last time the teams met at a major competition. So, according to Gerrard, what does it take to beat Die Nationalelf?
“You need every player to give everything they’ve got and every player to perform at a high level,” he told FIFA.com. “Germany are a fantastic team and they are going to be difficult to beat, but they are beatable. We’ve got good players and we’re on the back of a good performance and a victory, so we’re confident. We’re really looking forward to the game and can’t wait until kick-off.”
But like every Englishman, he also has painful memories of defeats, most notably at Italy 1990, when Gerrard, then just ten years old, watched the game on television in his Liverpool home. “It was a night of mixed emotions,” he recalled.” It was great to see England in the semi-final of a World Cup and on the night we actually did really well. The players did a great job and we were incredibly unfortunate not to win the game in normal time. Extra time came and went and then it came to the penalty shoot-out and after that I was in the house crying – a bit like Gazza actually!”
Come the final whistle on Sunday, Gerrard, and a nation of 51 million behind him, will be hoping that cheers rather than tears will be the order of the day.