Well, I told you so. Sven’s England, who had been anywhere from middling to dreadful during this World Cup, managed to escape criticism by that old chestnut – the “go down to ten men from a dubious decisison, go down fighting, fuck up the penalties” routine. It worked before, it will work again. Attention will be shifted away from the terrible, terrible, World Cup that England played and onto the outside factors; England yet again victims of circumstance and vendetta, rather than their own shortcomings.
It’s easy to blame an over-zealous Argie ref, but it would be a marvellous piece of self-deception to blame him. Rooney lashed out with a stamp not only because he has severe anger management issues, but because he was totally isolated up front and made to run for everything; Carvalho and Meira were able to double up on him and rattle and irk him at their pleasure.
It’s also far too easy to praise “the lads” for a “backs to the wall” ten man performance, when truth be told, a lot of them were lightweights: Lampard had a despicably bad game, terrible even by the appallingly low standard he has set for himself this World Cup. Gerrard wore himself out too soon, and though he was off by the time of Rooney’s card, Beckham had a very poor game. Only Hargreaves comes out with any sort of credit, not only for an excellent and tireless performance in central midfield, but for taking the game to the Portuguese on the left wing, after Eriksson had inexplicably taken off Joe Cole (the only player capable of delivering crosses) for Peter Crouch (the only forward capable of heading them in).
Quarter-final defeat on penalties looks OK but it totally belies the fact England were crap all tournament; England struggled to impose themselves in what was one of the weakest groups in the tournament, and had the relatively harmless non-threat of Ecuador to overcome to get that far. Against an ageing Portuguese side with its best player missing and there for the taking, England totally failed to take the game to the opposition, barely creating a single chance inside the box, until they were down to ten men, when it was far more punishing to do so. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Eriksson must be a relieved man. He doesn’t have to explain why he continued to play Beckham, who was inconsistent and often ineffectual. The criticism of why he only took three strikers to the World Cup, when two of them were unfit and the other hardly a goal machine at club level, will remain unanswered. He doesn’t have to defend his questionable midfield formation, or why he didn’t drop or at least restrain the woeful, selfish Lampard, whose insistence on repeatedly dashing into the box and shooting over the bar totally disrupted England’s attacking play throughout the tournament. As for why he called up Walcott, then never played him, or brought on a right-back who doesn’t take penalties to take a penalty, we’ll never know (unless there’s that book deal in the pipeline).
And that’s not just because he’s buggering off back to Sweden with a fat paycheck, but because no-one will ask these questions. Despite the hype and Rooney-mania, England were ultimately disappointing, from start to finish. They totally failed to live up to expectation, and were in all honesty lucky to get as far as the quarter-finals. Of course, England have no divine right to victory, and even if the players had played at their best, I doubt they would have won it. But even by the standards of a middling football power, they still underperformed badly and it was almost humiliating to watch such inept displays.
The English, as they are wont to do, will try to find excuses (honestly, you’d think hot weather in summer had only just been invented the way commentators bang on about it), rewrite history with clich? (any sort of ten-man performance by England is automatically described as “brave”) or apportion the blame elsewhere (how long before that Argentine ref gets Urs Meier-style death threats?) the real failures in this case were the players and the coach. They were crap. End of story. Don’t let anyone else fool you.