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Whither withering Albion…

As if on cue, the English handwringing has begun. Once more, The Three Lions have failed to reach the final of a major tournament… and once more, the finger-pointing and navel-gazing has started in earnest.  Football analysts will speculate for the rest of the summer on why this “golden generation” failed to make it past the second round, after failing to qualify for Euro 2008 altogether.

Was it fatigue? Don Fabio claims his players were tired from an overlong Premier League season.  Most of his players were selected from teams playing in cup runs or in European leagues.  Some pundits argue the team which qualified so easily by the autumn of 2009 was a shadow of itself, come summer of 2010.

Was it the ball? John Terry was caught out on the first goal yesterday when the ball sailed over his head, allowing Miroslav Klose to score the first tally.  Terry may have been out of position, but the Jabulani seems to have taken some players by surprise. Some observers say it is more favourable for the quick short-pass game of the South Americans… who have seen great success in this tournament so far.

Was it the manager?  Little Englanders say an Italian manager can never understand an English player. Of course, Schteve McClaren was English… and he was pants. Also it’s a little suspect that some of those calling for an English manager are looking for the job themselves.

Was it the selection? When Capello was hired, he said he would pick players based on form. But it soon became clear that the usual cast of characters would be appearing. A brittle Ferdinand was selected, along with players like Carrick, Upson, Heskey, James, Green, Walcott, SWP and Joe Cole… players who didn’t have the best seasons but seemed to have been chosen simply because they had all been capped before.  In-form players like Birmingham’s Roger Johnson, Stoke City’s Etherington and even Wolves’ Jody Craddock weren’t even given a glance.  They may not have international experience… but after this dismal World Cup, would it have mattered?

Was it age? England’s oldest-ever World Cup squad looked slow and random against a positively juvenile German team who looked more organized and experienced yesterday.  Was too much faith put into a group of players who — despite all their club success — have never achieved at the international level?

Is it English football itself? The Premier League has become a sporting Tower of Babel, a marketplace for the world’s players to make their fortunes on the global stage. But with big clubs buying — rather than developing — their players, England’s national team seems to have suffered. Witness the thin pool of talent available to Capello in goal and across the back four.

Many of the current players will likely call time on their international career, come Brazil in 2014.  Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Ferdinand; they will join the ranks of Lineker, Gascoigne, Shearer, Owen and Beckham before them.  All of them were great players who will never know what it feels like to win the greatest tournament on the planet.

For England fans, there is still 2012… and 2014… and so on. The faithful will wring their hands, hold their breath, and whisper, “Please don’t let us down again.”

Brent Lanthier

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Uh Oh…

Two massive injury stories have come out in the last hour: Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast has broken his elbow in a friendly with Japan, while England’s Rio Ferdinand sustained a knee injury in training this morning.

Drogba’s absence puts a serious dent in The Elephants’ chances, although Chelsea teammate Salomon Kalou is ready to step into the brink, as is former Portsmouth player Aruna Dindane.

Ferdinand’s injury may provide an opportunity for Jamie Carragher to move from right back to centre, and Capello still has Ledley King or Matthew Upson available. Tottenham Hotspur’s Michael Dawson has been recalled, after being cut from the England squad on Tuesday.

The pair join a growing list of players considered important to their countries’ drive for the Jules Rimet, including Ghana’s Michael Essien and Germany’s Michael Ballack. The fact that Essien, Ballack and Drogba are all teammates has given rise to talk of a Chelsea curse.  But it’s more likely to do with the Londoners’ long season, that included a down-to-the-wire Premier League title run, an FA Cup final, as well as a quarter-final exit in the Champions League. 

Brent Lanthier

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England’s Fury: France ’98

Kevin Hoggard

On June 30th 1998, David Beckham would find himself disappointing the English, due to a coming together with a Latino.  On June 28th 1998, I would come together with a Latina and ultimately disappoint her by being too English.  It took me 10 years to dissolve my union. Beckham screwed up his happy marriage to the nation in 47 minutes.

England qualified comfortably for France 98.  OK that was a joke: when have we ever qualified comfortably for a major competition? South Africa 2010, that’s when.

Needing a result in the final game to avoid the dreaded playoff, the boys battled out an impressive goalless draw with Italy.

So Glen Hoddle — mad as a hatter — accompanied the boys to France.  We weren’t seeded so we had to face one of the top sides in the group stage.  We got a little lucky in drawing Romania; Columbia and Tunisia would fill out the group.

Looking back at it, our side was actually damn good.  Here’s your childish giggle of the day: Campbell, Southgate and Adams were charged with covering Seaman.  Paul Ince, David Batty and Paul Scholes were in the middle of the park.  Graeme Le Saux and Darren Anderton charged down the wings, supplying the ammunition for Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham.  Not only that, but we had a good bunch of youngsters on the bench.  Amongst them were Gary Neville, David Beckham, Steve McManaman, Rio Ferdinand and Little Mickey Owen. 

One notable absence was Paul Gascoigne.  Poor Gazza was out of the squad due to loss of form on the pitch and finding too much form in the pubs.

We started the World Cup by seeing off the Tunisians comfortably. Goals from Shearer and Scholes won us the game 2-0.  The Romania game was our toughest test and it was notable for me, as Viorel Moldovan put Romania ahead in the second-half.  He was a Coventry player at the time and hardly ever scored for us.  The irony was not lost on me.  Owen replaced Sheringham late in the game, and within 10 minutes, the nippy 18-year-old scored an equaliser for us.  But in the final minute, Dan Petrescu broke English hearts and won the game for the Romanians.

I watched the deciding group game in a small bar in San Diego.  My new wife went for a stroll whilst I pounded beers with nervous abandon.  For once, it was a fairly simple game for us.  Owen and Beckham started against the Columbians and both played a big part.  Owen set up Anderton for England’s first goal.  A moppy-haired Beckham curled in what became his trademark free kick and we were coasting.  My wife returned to help cheer on England during the second half, as I sang us heartily into the round of 16.

We returned to Toronto for the next match.  I found myself in a pub packed full of ex-pats all ready to send the Argentineans back south of the equator.  It was a vibrant atmosphere full of beer bellies and replica jerseys.  Just 6 minutes in, Seaman brought down Simeone.  Bati-goal — or Batistuta to the uninitiated — dispatched the spot kick.  It was a lead that only lasted 4 minutes.  Ayala took down Owen and Shearer leathered the ball into the net, 1-1.  Beer flew everywhere.  On 16 minutes, Beckham chipped a delightful through ball to Owen just past the halfway line.  Owen used his speed to race by the Argentine defence and dinked a beautiful finish over Roa.  It was one of the goals of the tournament and Owen had announced himself to the world.

In the first half of injury time, Campbell committed a foul on the edge of our box.  The Argies worked a nice free kick, leaving our defence flat-footed and Zanetti equalised.  Two-two at the half and the chatter in the pub was muted.  As usual, England looked capable of scoring… but looked equally capable of giving up that lead just as fast.

Two minutes into the second half, Simeone flattened Beckham.  As the Argentine untangled himself, Beckham flicked out a leg in retribution, kicking him as hard as a pre-school child kicks a balloon.  Simeone was booked for the challenge but Beckham would receive a straight red for a brief moment of youthful exuberance.

That was it.  There was no way we could hold out for a whole half with 10 men.

But the Three Lions would surprise us and Sol Campbell scored what seemed like the winner on 81 minutes.  He rose majestically at a corner and drilled the ball in with his head, 3-2.  We jumped around and celebrated but as I spun around with mouth wide-open — hoping to catch stray spillage — I looked up and saw the Argentineans attacking.  How could this be?  It was too quick.  They should be taking the kick-off! 

While we madly celebrated, the goal had been disallowed for a push or climbing or being English.  I can’t remember.  I was pretty drunk by this stage.  The referee received the vitriol pouring from drunken English mouths as we cursed our luck for the final 10 minutes of the game.  England held out for the extra 30 minutes.  It was enough time to dull my senses with another pint in preparation for penalty kicks.

We didn’t really need to watch, as we knew what was coming.  Seaman actually saved Crespo’s kick to give us false hope but Ince stepped up straight afterwards and Roa evened things up with a save.  Penalties were exchanged and then Roa would save from Batty. Our World Cup had ended for another four years.

At the end of the match, Toronto’s The Fan590 was interviewing fans, asking their take on England’s demise.  I was asked for a few words.  Unfortunately, all of them were swear words.  It wasn’t live — just sound bites — so I composed myself and let them ask again.  My response was again laced with expletives.  I’d tried to put a cap on my emotions but apparently, that’s impossible after your dreams have been shattered and eight pints of Stella consumed.  They moved on as I continued to talk to my half-empty pint.

The press would vilify Beckham and he was booed mercilessly by opposing fans the next season.  Man United fans took to singing “Argentina” repeatedly in support for their young star.  The Sun — that magnificent publication — published the referee’s email address in the paper, encouraging the knuckle-dragging public to send him their kind missives.  Luckily for Mr Nielsen, they got the address wrong. 

You can’t pin the blame of an exit on a player or a referee.  We all make mistakes (although the disallowed goal was probably the right decision) and frankly, the hatred towards them is uncalled for. 

My anger dissipated by the time someone put an arm around me and said, “Qualifier for the Euros starts in a couple of months.  Fancy another pint?”

A smile then broke across my face, with hope building that we could win the next one.

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