Once again, it was a tournament which promised so much, yet delivered so little for England. The 4-1 defeat by Germany, the country’s heaviest at the FIFA World Cup™ finals, sent the Three Lions heading for home, with their tails firmly between their legs.
Yet, on paper at least, one could understand why Fabio Capello’s side were among the pre-tournament favourites. Following their impressive qualification for South Africa 2010 with nine wins out of a possible ten, England fans were supremely confident in their Italian coach’s ability. A look at the squad list, who regularly shine in the English Premier League – generally considered to be one of the world’s finest – also gave cause for good cheer.
In Wayne Rooney the team had a striker who had scored 34 goals in 44 games for Manchester United in 2009/10. In John Terry and Frank Lampard, they had the heartbeat of a Chelsea side which won a league and cup double just six weeks ago. In Steven Gerrard, they had the driving force of Liverpool, a player who consistently inspires the players around him to greater things – and crucially victories.
Yet, while these players shine for their clubs, they were mere shadows of themselves in South Africa – and one former England manager, Graham Taylor, believes he knows why. "Club football reigns supreme in our country," he told the BBC. "When there's no club football we all become England supporters. But we are club-orientated to such a degree that since the formation of the Premier League, the FA is still seen as the ruling body but it doesn't work that way. There needs to be a better understanding of the clubs and the international side in terms of how we can prepare for tournaments in a better way."
True, England were affected by injuries to key players in the build-up to the tournament. The evergreen David Beckham and captain Rio Ferdinand were ruled out, but Capello’s calls to the likes of Jamie Carragher and Paul Scholes [the former accepting, the latter refusing] highlighted a lack of confidence in the country’s new generation. Yet the likes of Gabriel Agbonlahor, Joe Hart, Tom Huddlestone, Adam Johnson and Jack Rodwell have all shone at youth level and are expected to press claims for regular inclusion into the senior starting line-up in the build-up to UEFA EURO 2012.
For England, the memories of their time in South Africa will largely be bad ones. It began in Rustenburg when Clint Dempsey’s shot slipped through Robert Green’s grasp. It continued in Cape Town when they were held by a resolute Algeria side and concluded in Bloemfontein as a slick, stylish Germany side put them to the sword.
Rooney’s run without scoring in a FIFA World Cup stretched to eight matches, with many observers claiming that Capello’s insistence on playing 4-4-2, partnering him with the out-of-form Emile Heskey or Jermain Defoe, helped thwart the realisation of his undoubted potential on the world stage. A good number championed a 4-2-3-1 system, with Gerrard given a licence to support his fellow Scouser in attack; giving the pair the chance to play in arguably their most effective positions.
England traditionally feel hard done by whenever they exit the FIFA World Cup. Since winning the tournament in 1966, a stomach virus to first-choice goalkeeper Gordon Banks (1970), going out despite not losing a game (1982), Diego Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ (1986), a goalkeeper error (2002) and bad luck in penalty shoot-outs (1990, 1998 and 2006) have bank been cited as excuses, but this time around, not even Frank Lampard’s first half effort has been offered as a smokescreen by the English press, public and even the players.
“The only thing which counts is the referee and the linesman and they didn’t see it as a goal, so [any complaints] are irrelevant,” England defender Matthew Upson told FIFA. “At the end of the day we weren't good enough to go through. It is as simple as that. I’m sure everyone will go away and analyse the performances and how things went. It’s something that’s going to be looked at. I can't explain the performances. It is very difficult to analyse all these games and give a reason why things happened. We gave our best, but it just wasn’t good enough.”