A game of two Englands

Image of Simon Kuper

It was a game of two Englands, and whether England can progress from here depends on which England wins the internecine fight. The good England is the England of top-class footballers who can out-pass most teams here. It revealed itself for about 15 minutes before and 15 minutes after half-time, and it mostly featured Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and James Milner.

Rooney looks beaten up after a hard season, in the latter phases of which he played injured for Manchester United. However, he is the first non-drinking Englishman since time immemorial who can see the spaces between lines. On half an hour he cleverly slotted the ball through two Slovenian defenders into the path of Gerrard, who resisted the ancestral English tendency to blast blindly, and placed a side-footed ball towards the corner of the net. Samir Handanovic, Slovenia’s answer to England’s former keeper Robert Green, almost fumbled it into his own goal. That is the passing football you should play if you have Gerrard and Rooney, and the opposition is forced to recruit from the Belgian and Polish leagues.

To play passing football, England need to calm down. Public opinion back home is always demanding more passion, but England need less of it. Their manager Fabio Capello rejoiced on the pitch afterwards: “The mind now is free, without fear, without everything.” He had even resorted to a time-honoured English method of relaxing his players. “Yesterday evening they drank beer,” he revealed at the press conference. “You can ask.”

To play passing football, England probably also need to keep their two old-fashioned English “big men” Emile Heskey and Peter Crouch on the bench. Simply by virtue of their size, they attract blind punts forward. Simply by virtue of his size, Jermain Defoe, who at 1.70m was about 20 centimetres shorter than his Slovenian markers, encourages England to pass on the ground.

Defoe is also a natural goalscorer, always a useful quality in a striker. His was the kind of goal you score against a lesser team: Milner hit an almost Beckham-esque cross, Defoe outpaced his marker and kneed it straight at Handanovic, who characteristically let it slip through. Heskey, England’s centre-forward going into the World Cup, wouldn’t have scored it.

But too often we saw the other England: the old warrior England that despises the pass. Seventeen years after the abolition of kick-and-rush as the official ideology of the England team, punting still seems to be an ancestral urge. In the first minute alone Milner hit a blind searching ball forward, and John Terry, under almost no pressure, whacked a ball into the stands like a Watford centre-back in 1985. Defoe’s goal settled England down, but when Heskey came on late in the game, blind punts returned. Shamefully, they are the first resort of David James, England’s keeper.

To be fair to him, as footballers say, his central defence doesn’t like passing. West Ham’s Matthew Upson is the fourth-choice centre-back, and looked it on Wednesday. Upright and perfectly equipped to mark the giant centre-forward who has largely disappeared from today’s football, Upson struggled to pass to feet. His naïve and unnecessary fouls – hands all over the opponent’s body – could cost England later. Terry beside him was scarcely more comfortable on the ball. Sensible opponents will mark every English player except Upson, and let him keep booting them the ball. Thoughts on Wednesday often turned to Rio Ferdinand, England’s most poised defender, injured during the team’s first training session in South Africa.

The press conference afterwards demonstrated that unthinking warrior football remains engrained in British thinking. Capello, raised in Italy on eternal debates about tactics, was here asked questions about Terry’s “leadership” and England’s “spirit”. Capello normally sounds like a man forever stuck in the beginner’s English class, but he has mastered at least this aspect of the unfamiliar new language. “We refound the spirit,” he dutifully replied.

Football hasn’t quite come home, but nor have the England team. However, if the kick-and-rush England predominates from Sunday onwards, they probably won’t progress much further against opponents who have more than 2m inhabitants to draw from.

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