Joe Cole believes England's stars must learn how to play under pressure before they can mount a serious challenge for the FIFA World Cup™. Fabio Capello's side have one last chance to fine-tune their preparations for the forthcoming FIFA World Cup qualifiers when they face the Czech Republic in a friendly at Wembley on Wednesday.
But Cole is convinced the England coach needs to find a solution to a more deep-rooted problem than who should partner Wayne Rooney and what formation the team should use.
Capello can call on players who are capable of dominating the biggest club matches in Europe - eight of his squad started last season's UEFA Champions League final - but they struggle to reproduce those performances for England. Cole suspects a fear of failure is the cause of the malaise.
"The main thing for England is you need players who can play under pressure and do it under the spotlight because you know there is a lot of criticism waiting from the public," Cole said. "You've got to deal with that. That is the hardest obstacle we are going to get over as a team, playing under that intense pressure. Some players can do it better than others. That is just how it is. We need England to get over that psychological barrier.
"It's a process. We might not go out there on Wednesday and win 6-0 and have everyone saying we can be world champions. We have to be realistic and build on our confidence."
Unlike club football, where only a relatively small number of people are disappointed if a team lose, the huge expectations of the English public and media can create a vicious backlash if the national team underachieve. The players are only too well aware of the potential for them to become figures of scorn and ridicule, and the pressure weighs heavily on their shoulders, according to Cole.
That unease played a key role in England's failed attempt to qualify for UEFA EURO 2008 after a series of timid performances shot through with anxiety. Capello has already recognised the problem and Cole revealed the Italian has spent much of his short reign trying to lift the burden.
"Playing for Chelsea and playing for England are two completely different things. International football is different," he said. "I wouldn't say any one player lacks confidence. We need to improve our mentality as a team. We are doing that, we're not burying our heads in the sand. We are trying to play and get the ball down. We need to stay cool and calm.
"It's pigeon steps. The World Cup isn't for two years. We need to improve slowly so when we get there we are better physically, mentally and technically. As a group it's something we need to improve on. We are doing things to improve. We need to go out there and be free. Results help that. There's no science to it, you need the results to breed confidence."
Once Wednesday's match is out of the way, England can turn their attention to erasing the painful memories of that miserable EURO 2008 campaign.
The qualifiers kick off in early September with an away double-header against Andorra and Croatia. Cole can't wait to finally get back to meaningful action after a year kicking their heels in passionless friendlies.
"What we need is competitive games. We've had a bedding-in period and we are all looking forward to winning some points," Cole said. "That's when you'll see the best of the team, when we are competing for some points."