By Mark Stokes
We've all known someone like him at some point in our lives. He's the irksome friend of a friend or the long-lost uncle who comes to visit once every couple of years. You'll have plenty to catch up on, but as soon as you relate your latest achievements, he's armed with a story to top yours. Your retort is a heartfelt account of the day when …but it's no good. If you went to the moon - he went to Mars.
That's pretty much the way of it with England's soccer team these days. They sold us a real bill of goods in the weeks and months leading up to World Cup 2010.
The Fleet Street tabloids extolled the virtues of this latest and greatest version of the Three Lions (the Golden Generation, as they have come to be known) and quite a few pundits spoke of England winning the World Cup itself. There was about as much substance to the claim as there is use for an ashtray on a motorcycle.
For those still in shock at the manner of England's’ exit from the tournament last Sunday, get this. I documented (I knew I’d need facts to back up the argument I’ve been spewing for the last several years about England’s particular brand of football) each misplaced pass by Fabio Capello’s team in Bloemfontein (in tennis they would be called unforced errors, in the NFL overthrown passes or broken plays).
During the opening 28 minutes against the Germans, the red shirts hit 13 long passes to nowhere in particular, all of which resulted in a turnover of possession. It started as early as 14 seconds into the game, and with less than half an hour gone, I had seen enough to stop writing. I knew the problem was chronic but when one has the facts and figures in front of him, it makes for disturbing reading indeed.
With less than a third of the contest gone, it certainly didn’t need any more illustrating that England’s players do not, or have not in decades, played soccer the way it is enjoyed by the successful nations. Franz Beckenbauer labeled England as a 'kick and rush' team before last Sunday. He later felt the need to apologize - but those in the corridors of power at England's Football Association headquarters, should be thanking Beckenbauer for identifying a problem they've ignored since the mid-1970s.
The Round of 16 loss to Germany did not occur last Sunday – it happened some 17 or 18 years ago in the youth leagues of London, Manchester and Liverpool, where youngsters were hoodwinked into believing that long hopeful passes into the abyss is the best route to success.
Even so, copious culpability for England's troubles in South Africa was laid squarely at Fabio Capello's doorstep by a beguiled nation awaiting the team's return on Tuesday. Capello to blame for England's demise? It's like ignoring the elephant in the corner of the room.
The Italian made some horrible personnel choices, but he did send 'world icons' Lampard, Cole, Gerrard, Terry and Rooney into battle, did he not? And I don't recall seeing Fabio kick a ball in England colors over the past three weeks?
Should Capello be relieved of his duties as England team boss, which is more than a distinct possibility, it will top off a chapter that is arguably the most laughable in English football history. The England manager, as we speak, could soon be replaced by bookmakers favorite Harry "more of the same" Redknapp, when Arsenal coach, Arsene Wenger, is one the English F.A. should listen to.
His take on last Sunday's England performance was:
"England did not seem to be at the level to use their main strength - the huge pace they put in the game. Was that physical fatigue or a mental reason? I do not know, but you never found the sense of English football in there,” Wenger said.
It's a nice way of saying that the kick and rush game is the only way they know how, but England couldn't even produce that on the day.
Wenger, tellingly, has built an Arsenal team that often takes the field with no Englishmen, or "English style" players, except one or two youth products who have been sheltered from the error-ridden native game.
The French coach, who has had the courage to dismiss the English player in the land in which he makes his living, is perhaps the only fit for the England job at present. He knows the limitations of the bulldog approach. He's witnessed it for more than a decade. Wenger should be approached and given the opportunity to find a new generation to replace the Lost Boys of Bloemfontein. It will take time, but it's got to be done to save English football and all those who depend on it.
While public opinion is clearly warped when it comes to the English and their soccer team, it seems the powers that be in the United States Soccer Federation are suffering from the same malaise.
Had England touched down on home soil this week on the back of a gusty showing at the World Cup, the type that the United States produced, their legions of fans might have forgiven the early exit. The performance of Bob Bradley's team was the best of any US team at the big show, the 1950, 1994 and 2002 vintages included.
But not enough, apparently, for Bradley's bosses at the USSF. Quite what was expected of a man who had the squad of least experienced professionals in Group C is anyone's guess. US media reports this week have USSF president Sunil Gulati meeting with Bradley next month to discuss the coach's future.
"The team is capable of more," Gulati said. "The players know it. I think Bob knows it. At that level, we are disappointed. Everyone associated with the program feels it was an opportunity missed - a game we could have won and probably feel we should have won."
Take it from me, Sunil: Bob Bradley pulled rabbits out of hats at the World Cup. No team, including three-time champion Italy, has a divine right to success and no team in Group C played with as much gusto as the Americans. The US played stunningly attractive football at times and showed themselves to the world as currently a better outfit than England. The Round of 16 loss to Ghana clearly flattered the Africans – few would argue that the better team lost last Saturday night in Rustenburg.
US soccer has never stood so proudly in the eyes of the world. While the sun has set on English football, it is clearly rising in the United States. Do the right thing, Mr. Gulati, and retain the services of Bob Bradley.
Mark Stokes is a longtime observer of international soccer who contributes occasional analysis and commentary to Corner Kicks.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
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