For a number of months there has been a debate on this site about how good the English team really is. Most have claimed that this version of the Three Lions represented a golden generation of players finally coming to the pinnacle of their skills and ready to challenge for the most valued trophy on earth. Others took a decidedly dimmer view. For those, the real England was the team that failed to qualify for Euro ’08, failed to impress in friendlies against quality opposition, and shuffled managers as if a different cook could turn chicken droppings into Chicken Cordon Bleu.
Two games into Engalnd’s World Cup campaign, that debate looks largely settled. England may still qualify out of the group stages, but even if they beat Slovenia on Wednesday, few hold out much hope of them progressing much further.
So what is it that makes some of these players so effective on their Premiership team and so stolid on the English National team?
Most critically, on their club team, they are surrounded by better players. All these great English players rarely partner with other English players on their club teams. Instead, they are usually paired with an outstanding player who would sooner eat their shin guard than a plate of fish and chips. Frank Lampard plays with the outstanding Michael Essien of Ghana. The same goes for John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho and for Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov (and before him, Cristiano Ronaldo).
This impact can clearly be seen in the case of Steven Gerrard. In England, it is settled law that Gerrard is one of the most ferocious, driven midfielders in the game. However, that law became settled when he was paired with Xavi Alonso, a tremendously hard working and efficient box-to-box dynamo. When Alonso went to Real Madrid last year and was not replaced with anything of similar quality, all of the sudden Gerrard looked very ordinary. The empty space that Gerrard used to barrel into now was closed down. Gerrard struggled to make an impact all year and, despite his armband, is struggling in a very similar fashion in Africa.
Gerrard without Alonso, Lampard without Essien, and Rooney without anyone is what you are getting in this World Cup.
And yet, on their club teams, these English players are treated as Gods by the media. The English media creates its own reality. In the Fleet Street press, Oasis is the next Beatles, Sienna Miller is the next Katherine Hepburn and David Beckham is the next George Best. Pumping up their celebrities to impossible acclaim (and then deflating them to figures of scorn) is the business model that sells newspapers. In that light, it is not at all surprising that a decent player like Rooney, Gerrard or Terry is presented as the undisputed star of their team, handed all the armbands, and allowed to lift all the trophies. From this side of the Atlantic, it is a little easier to be more objective and see how virtually all of the top teams in England are carried by the imported players, but for the English fans, it takes a mightily objective person to be so calculating.
So, what now for England? The players left the field yesterday in Capetown to a chorus of jeers. After a long English season, they are now in a tired place where they cannot to read a newspaper, do an interview or watch a sports show without seeing their own ridicule. Psychologically, the temptation to bid this messy affair a warm goodbye and spend the next three weeks on a beach waiting for the new season to being must be very enticing. Whether the players have the stomach to pick themselves up, beat Slovenia and continue forward against this emotional and physical onslaught will be a revealing test. They may have the bottle to fashion that type of victory on Wednesday.
But what they no longer have is the myth of greatness. This “greatest team in a generation,” is not anything close. Instead , they are nothing more than a mid-level European team, and it will take a monumental reversal to indicate otherwise.