Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

England's chances in the World Cup: er ...

England's Soccer Fans Expect the Best but Await the Worst

Will Wayne Rooney's broken foot heal in time for the second round? Can Sven-Goran Eriksson, the laconic Swedish coach, pull his nervous, egotistical players together? Will Melanie Slade, the 17-year-old girlfriend of the 17-year-old forward Theo Walcott, crumble under the pressure of having her figure and her fashion sense dissected daily by the tabloids?

Such are the questions consuming England's soccer team before the World Cup, which begins June 9 in Germany and the outcome of which will lift, or destroy, a nation's fragile sense of self-worth. But amid the soap opera that is soccer here — the large personalities, the even larger paychecks, the outfits, the injuries, the tantrums, the expectations — lies a hard, sobering truth: England, for all its bluster, has won the tournament only once, in 1966.

That was 40 years ago, when Harold Wilson was prime minister and shillings were a legitimate form of currency. Since that great, shining day, English fans have been forced to hedge their expectations, approaching every World Cup with the brittle hopefulness of the chronically disappointed.

"They always invent new arguments to persuade themselves that this time they can do it, when form and logic show that it's highly unlikely," said John Carlin, a British soccer writer and the author of "White Angels: Beckham, Real Madrid and the New Football." Describing the importance of soccer, Carlin quoted Bill Shankly, the former Liverpool coach: "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I'm very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

Soccer here is a three-ring circus, a zoo, a metaphor, a way of life. As a result, England's indifferent record in the sport's showcase event requires its supporters to perform an emotional high-wire act every four years, simultaneously holding two competing notions in their heads.

One: This will be the year their team finally realizes its massive potential and wins.

Two: Their team never wins.

This year, England's chronic angst is compounded by two facts. The first is that the tournament is being played in Germany, home of its bitterest rival and agent of some of its biggest defeats. In 1990, England lost a heartbreaking match to Germany in a penalty-kick shootout in the World Cup semifinals. In fact, after England's greatest victory over Germany — its 4-2 extra-time victory in the 1966 final — 24 years passed before the English beat the Germans again in a major competition.

The second problem is Rooney's foot. Rooney, a prodigy who rose from the rough streets of Liverpool to become a star at Manchester United, is England's most talented scorer and its greatest hope. But last month he broke a metatarsal bone in his right foot, and on Friday he was ruled out for the first round of matches.

Every day there have been conflicting reports, anguished speculation, hope on the heels of despair. Rooney's coach in Manchester, Sir Alex Ferguson, described it as "folly" and a "wild dream" to expect Rooney to be available, while Eriksson, the England manager, said he was "very positive" that Rooney would play at some point. But Rooney's teammate Gary Neville, who took 21 weeks to recover from a similar injury, said this month that "as it stands, we have to plan for Wayne not being available."

On Monday, The Associated Press reported that Eriksson requested a scan of Rooney's injured foot be moved up one week, to June 7, presumably to give him the opportunity to replace Rooney on England's roster if he will be unable to play. Teams are allowed to replace injured players up to 24 hours before their first game, which in England's case is against Paraguay on June 10.

Meanwhile, Eriksson is to leave his post after the World Cup, throwing the team into further instability. A seemingly inoffensive, even dull, Swede, Eriksson is known as much for his vigorous love life — his curious relationship with Nancy Dell'Olio, his indeterminately aged, perma-tanned, tight-outfit-wearing girlfriend, as well as his affairs with various other women, all of whom have been happy to discuss them publicly — as he is for the serene blandness of his public remarks and for his managing skills, or lack thereof.

The search for a replacement has been embarrassing. The top choice, the Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari, coach of the Portuguese national team, abruptly withdrew his candidacy in April. Scolari had been unnerved, he said, by the 20 British reporters who camped outside his house and rang his doorbell while he was having dinner with his family.

"If that is part of another culture, it's not part of my culture," he said. "I don't like this pressure, so I will definitely not be coach of England."

It was unclear whether that was the whole story — and in any case, "the press hadn't even begun to hound him," Simon Hattenstone wrote in The Guardian — but Scolari was right to be nervous. British newspapers, and glossy gossip magazines with names like Hello!, Ok!, Heat, More, and Now are obsessed with the team's private lives.

No detail is too small, too mundane or too prurient, from the supposed affair between the team's handsome captain, David Beckham, and his former personal assistant (she sold the story, for hundreds of thousands of dollars); to the relative stylishness and cellulite levels of the players' wives and girlfriends; to the party Beckham and his wife, the former Posh Spice, gave a week ago Sunday night in their country mansion, known as Beckingham Palace.

Despite months of planning and the hiring of a band of Gurkha guards to keep gatecrashers away, the party "barely sputtered into life after a catalogue of disasters," The Daily Mail reported with some glee. "With her dreams crashing around her, Victoria Beckham reportedly flew into a screaming fit."

Meanwhile, the paper said, "injury-hit Rooney appeared sullen and refused to wave at autograph-hunters."

Trying to control the news-media madness, Steve McClaren, hired as Eriksson's replacement after Scolari fell through, told a newspaper that he had had a brief affair with a former secretary — placing the story himself so as to avoid its being ferreted out by reporters digging for dirt.

Because whatever dirt there is, English reporters will find it. It was big news several years ago when a birthday party Rooney held for his girlfriend, Coleen McLoughlin, descended into an inebriated brawl, with the couple's relatives openly slugging each other on the dance floor. It was big news, at least in the photographic sense, when defender Rio Ferdinand recently unbraided the manly cornrows he usually wears, unveiling an unruly cloud of cotton-candyesque hair.

The most recent excitement was Eriksson's decision to include on the World Cup roster Walcott, a forward of endless promise who was signed by Arsenal but has yet to play in a Premier League match.

"It's a big gamble, I know it is," Eriksson said, with characteristic understatement. "I am excited to see him. He's a big talent."

As the team prepares for its final few weeks of training, it is trying to put on its happiest face. "I think we will win it," Eriksson said recently.

Evoking a hopeful parallel, The Observer of London described the prediction as "echoing the optimism of Sir Alf Ramsey, who forecast England's 1966 World Cup win from the day he was appointed to manage the team three years earlier."

And Michael Owen, an English striker, beseeched the fans not to treat the team as "glorious losers."

"If you keep drilling that into everyone, that we're perennial losers and all that," he said, "you're not doing any favors for us, that's for certain."


Post a Comment

<< Home