Fabio Capello will not settle for second best from his England players at the World Cup in South Africa
During his time as England's captain John Terry was hardly noted for his verbal skills, even less for the quality of his apercus. But as Capello's squad assembled for the 2010 World Cup finals, Terry made a remark to a television interviewer that may have indicated a significant change of attitude within the camp.
He had been asked about the potentially helpful effect of playing the tournament during South Africa's winter, in conditions familiar to English footballers. “With that on our side,” Terry replied, “and the quality in our squad and a little bit of luck, who knows?”
It seemed a suitably modest response, the necessary affirmation of faith in his team-mates balanced by a humorous acknowledgment of the part played by fate in even the best-run campaigns.
And as such it was a world away from the comments in Germany four years ago as Sven-Goran Eriksson's squad checked out of their six-star living quarters and absorbed the reality of their abrupt dismissal in a quarterfinal shoot-out.
Back then both Eriksson and Frank Lampard, Terry's Chelsea team-mate, gave voice to an apparently serious belief that England had “deserved” to win the tournament. On what grounds, precisely, one had to ask? Nothing they did in their matches against Paraguay or Trinidad and Tobago or Ecuador had indicated the presence of a team worthy to rank with the heroes of 1966.
The use of the word “deserved” indicated the depth to which a bogus sense of entitlement had seeped into the players' bones, a product of their absurdly inflated Premier League salaries.
Somehow the ownership of Bentleys and mansions had become entangled in their minds with a right to win football matches against foreigners. The shock upon the discovery that the truth was elsewhere, and that others could do the really important job rather more effectively, was sometimes pitiful to behold.
The much derided Eriksson took England to three quarterfinals in major tournaments but the team stopped improving and the Swede appeared to have settled for accepting their limitations. His immediate successor, of course, did much worse.
But Capello is a very different zuppa di pesce. Although he may indeed have noticed the size of the salary on offer when the Football Association came calling, he is not a man to settle for second best from his players — as we saw from his touchline antics during England's last warm-up match at Wembley, where they beat Mexico 3-1. Capello was not fooled by the scoreline. He could see that for most of the evening the Central Americans were sharper in skills, wits and speed.
For veteran England-watchers this was a familiar sensation. In the days when the Wembley pitch was oriented from east to west rather than from north to south, foreigners often arrived to hand out a lesson in the retention and manipulation of the ball, sending shock waves through the national game.
But occasionally — as against Germany in 1966 and 2001, Brazil in 1970, Holland in 1996 and Croatia in 2008 — England summon up such an outstanding performance against high-quality opponents that their supporters are given a teasing glimpse of nirvana.
For this year's tournament Capello has at his disposal a handful of near-veterans with a great deal of top-flight experience, quite a few players about whose international quality no one is quite sure and some promising youngsters, one or two of whom came into that category four years ago and have not yet managed to graduate.
Given that World Cups are usually won by teams with a high proportion of seasoned operators, and that Italian coaches tend to trust in maturity, that is what we can expect to see. With his deployment of Theo Walcott in Zagreb, however, Capello showed his willingness to take the occasional risk and there may be more to come.
England play their three group matches in Rustenburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, taking them from the 6,000ft altitude of the high veldt down to sea level and also giving them a fair idea of the variety to be found within an endlessly beautiful, if troubled, country.
Not an easy task
The USA, Algeria and Slovenia are their opponents in Group C and in normal circumstances England would expect to lead the table, after which they would meet the runners-up in Group D (which has Germany, Ghana, Serbia and Australia). Were Capello's team to finish second, their next encounter would be with the winners from that quartet, not an easy task whichever way the cards fall.
Germany, who last won the World Cup 20 years ago, are among a gaggle of European teams hoping to perform better than in their recent outings, also including France and Italy, who met in the 2006 final.
But the European favourites are Spain, stylish and resounding winners of Euro 2008. Now under the leadership of the phlegmatic Vicente del Bosque, they will need fitness certificates from Fernando Torres and Cesc Fàbregas if they are to repeat the pleasure that spread around the world as virtue was so clearly rewarded.
Their principal rivals in the final stages ought to be Brazil and Argentina, neighbours who have adopted very different approaches to the tournament.
Dunga, Brazil's coach, was their captain in the winning campaign of 1994, bossing a side that had no room for the teenage prodigy Ronaldo and won the final in a penalty shoot-out.
The pragmatist's pragmatist, he settled on his squad for South Africa long ago and turned a deaf ear to entreaties for the inclusion of Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato. Nevertheless there is enough quality in his ranks to make the most of a solid defensive platform built on two Internazionale players, the goalkeeper Júlio César and the centre back Lúcio.
At the other end of the spectrum lies Diego Maradona, the opposite of Dunga as both player and coach. Maradona has no room in his Argentina squad for two outstanding Inter players, Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso.
But the presence of Lionel Messi, Carlos Tévez, Sergio Agüero, Angel di María and Gonzalo Higuaín ensures that the team will not be short of scoring power or entertainment, and Maradona, for all his chaotic behaviour, may be expected to find a way of inspiring his players. It is worth remembering that in March they beat Germany 1-0 in Munich with an impressively disciplined performance.
And, of course, in this first African finals we have six of the continent's nations — Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Algeria and the hosts, South Africa – whose success would be celebrated as suitable recognition of a fertile source of talent for leagues around the world.
Samuel Eto'o, Didier Drogba and Steven Pienaar will want to bring their influence to bear on a tournament whose outcomes in the 18 previous editions have been evenly balanced between traditional powers of South America and Europe, with nine victories apiece. Time for a change, although perhaps not yet. — © Guardian News and Media 2010