It's time to think the unthinkable
Ian Bell, columnist of the year
BACK IN the good old, mad old days when Alan Greenspan chaired the US Federal Reserve, he felt the need to warn Wall Street once about what he termed "irrational exuberance". If the financial guru is looking for a retirement hobby, he could do worse than apply his thinking to a critique of the London sports pages.
Exuberant? If you didn't know better, you might mistake a win over little Belarus as proof that the combined might of South America and Europe had been routed in a single game. To read certain reports, indeed, a four-game winning streak involving a stuttering performance against Andorra, a flattering score-line versus Kazakhstan, and a single truly impressive victory - against Croatia - has put the South Africa World Cup in the bag.
But irrational? Some molars may need to be gritted on this side of the border. Forget the fact that England have seemed incapable recently of starting a game until 45 minutes have elapsed. Overlook the tendency of English reporters and fans alike to clutch at straws. The talent - never seriously in doubt - has found its artistic director at last. Damn.
England have never managed four consecutive wins in any qualifying group, easy or hard. England's players have never admitted to fallibility, far less over-confidence, not as the newly-realistic Steven Gerrard and the newly-blunt Rio Ferdinand have begun to do. Suddenly the stars who paid lip service, absurdly, to the elusive qualities of Steve McClaren are unequivocal about the revolution effected by Fabio Capello.
You would have expected England to qualify from Group Six. Then again, you would have expected - English fans certainly expected - that these richly-rewarded individuals would have participated in Euro 2008 as of right. That didn't happen. Before the current campaign they were in bad shape, feared by few, and apparently incapable of ever reproducing their Premier League form.
Yet Capello has persuaded Wayne Rooney to rediscover the scoring habit by the simple expedient of playing him just behind the once-scorned Emile Heskey. The coach has applauded Gerrard's honesty and effort while appearing to solve the mystery, if mystery it is, of how you field the Liverpool star alongside Frank Lampard. Capello has even found a use for David Beckham. Thirty odd minutes over four games isn't much, but enough if you can use - and who cannot? - a specialist kicker.
England have confidence again, and there is nothing irrational about that. They have confidence, indeed, without the ego, the sense of entitlement, that has marred their efforts for so long. Capello's training methods and businesslike attitude have drawn good reviews, but the apparent masterstroke has been simplicity itself: no one is guaranteed a game.
Michael Owen will no doubt rue that fact, but the first fruits of the new regime could probably be discerned when John Terry began to fret over his hopes of retaining the captain's armband. Capello probably cares little about that very English symbol, but the undisputed master of Chelsea got the message. No automatic picks; no free rides: prove yourself.
The ecstatic press reaction has been premature, of course. In England, it always is. Even reduced to the belief that somehow the national team has to come good sooner or later - there is no law to that effect - commentators have clung to the idea that their team will, must, reclaim the World Cup one day. Look at Spain, they say. Underachievers decade after decade. Finally, everything clicked.
That is not, as Capello must realise, any basis on which to plan a campaign. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Andorra will pose no problems in South Africa. A fine win over Croatia involves no guarantees. Remember the false dawn when England walloped the Germans? As events were to prove, it meant nothing. Most of the big sides in international football have struggled lately but that, as the coach also knows, is irrelevant at this stage.
Still, 14 goals scored and only three conceded by a squad that is not yet settled, if Capello is to be believed. It is a squad, furthermore, that heeds every instruction without question, sticks doggedly to the plan, adapts dutifully to any adjustments the coach requires, and does not panic. That old vice has been banished, with it the absurd stage-fright liable to afflict players apparently terrified of appearing before their home fans.
The admission is grudging - a genetic thing, perhaps - but there is actually no reason why these England players cannot heal the old wounds in South Africa. In bleak years they depended almost entirely on Rooney, who could not rise to the challenge. Fans and reporters fretted over Gerrard's inability to live up to his billing. The left of midfield, "the problem area", became a source of national debate. Capello has purged a team and a country of what amounted to superstitious nonsense.
That being the case, the months ahead are liable to be hellish for those of us who wish England no ill but cannot, with the best will in the world, wish them insufferable success. There is some pleasure to be had in the fact that it has taken a European to bridge the gulf that is English insularity. Perhaps they will learn some humility south of the border. For Capello, professionalism will do.
I'm still not convinced, for what it's worth, by his second string, the Matthew Upsons, the Gareth Barrys and the Wayne Bridges. I think the Italian still has a goalkeeping problem in the shape of David James. "Cashley" Cole, when he returns, has to justify his arrogance. But even a side that would once have been called makeshift - no Terry, Cole or Owen Hargreaves - disposed of Belarus with a certain style.
Others will have taken note. Spain have managed 12 points from 12; the Dutch could follow. As to the rest, Capello's coming round of "experimental" friendlies ought to prove revealing. England's cheerleaders have a sort of a point, in any case. They and their team are due a reward. It has been a long, bitter time in coming. I think I'll book that Antarctic cruise now.
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