Re­al­ity check yes, but why so joy­less?

Daily Mail - - World Cup Countdown - PIC­TURE: ANDY HOOPER

THE fashion this sum­mer is for mis­er­ab­lism. Where Eng­land used to go into tour­na­ments on a wave of, ad­mit­tedly, of­ten un­founded op­ti­mism and tub-thump­ing, the trend this year is to point out ev­ery fault in a world weary tone. ‘Just for the sake of it, make sure you’re al­ways frown­ing, it shows the world you’ve got sub­stance and depth,’ sang the Pet Shop Boys, and there has been quite a bit of that about of late.

Much of it comes in the name of giv­ing the pub­lic what it wants, ex­cept the pub­lic does not know what the hell it wants ei­ther. Half want chuckle-headed cheer­lead­ing, tied to a news black­out around any in­for­ma­tion or opin­ions that may ad­versely af­fect the team, oth­ers would have ev­ery bul­letin writ­ten from the per­spec­tive that Eng­land will ul­ti­mately be passed off the park by Spain or Brazil or go out on penal­ties to Ger­many, so the en­tire cam­paign will be an ex­er­cise in fu­til­ity.

In­juries to Rio Fer­di­nand and Gareth Barry, and some pretty un­con­vinc­ing pre-tour­na­ment warm-up games, have only com­pounded the negativity.

The re­al­ity, as ever, is some­where mid­way. Eng­land have is­sues, but so do many oth­ers. There is no per­fect team in the world at the moment. Spain are clos­est to it and Brazil have much po­ten­tial; Ar­gentina should be up there but have a trou­ble­some mav­er­ick in charge.

Por­tu­gal pos­sess ar­guably t he great­est player for this tour­na­ment in Cris­tiano Ron­aldo — cer­tainly if the World Cup ball perf or ms as er­rat­i­cally as pre­dicted from free-kicks — but he lacks the sup­port of a strong team. Lionel Messi i s not as ef­fec­tive for Ar­gentina as he is for Barcelona.

There is al­ways the fear that Fer­nando Tor­res of Spain will be in­jured, while two of the strong­est out­siders, Hol­land and Ivory Coast, have fit­ness scares af­fect­ing their best play­ers, Ar­jen Robben a nd Didi e r Drogba.

Italy lack a great striker, France are un­con­vinc­ing un­der Ray­mond Domenech and in­jury has so dam­aged Ger­many that the av­er­age age of the squad makes it t he t hi r d youngest at t he tour­na­ment, be­hind Ghana and North Korea.

So Eng­land have what might be termed a puncher’s chance. It would be fool­ish to over­state it, but to dis­mis­sively write off a team coached by Fabio Capello and in­clud­ing a col­lec­tion of play­ers — John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lam­pard, Steven Ger­rard and Wayne Rooney — who are cov­eted by t he great­est clubs and man­agers in the world seems per­verse.

Eng­land have a favourable group and a route that, if all goes ac­cord­ing to form, avoids the most fan­cied team, Spain, un­til the f i nal, and Brazil un­til t he semi-fi­nal. There is still plenty of trou­ble out there, but each coun­try has its prob­lems and, what­ever his­tory sug­gests, none will wel­come a pair­ing with Eng­land. So why the long face? In the rush to em­brace re­al­ism af­ter past dis­ap­point­ments we ap­pear to have over­shot our stop and al i ghted at pes­simism in­stead.

To briefly di­gress, a writer called Justin Halpern be­gan post­ing the thoughts of his 73-year-old fa­ther, Sam, on Twit­ter. He now has a mil­lion fol­low­ers. Sam’s ob­ser­va­tion about a par­tic­u­larly fine woman that Justin was too in­tim­i­dated to ap­proach bears re­peat­ing.

‘Out of your league?’ he echoed. ‘Son, let women fig­ure out why they won’t screw you. Don’t do it for them.’

This is what we are do­ing as the World Cup be­gins. Stand­ing with the wallflow­ers find­ing rea­sons not to ask the pret­ti­est girl to dance. And maybe the biggest prize is be­yond us. But it is go­ing to be be­yond 30 other coun­tries, too. The point is, if we are go­ing to fan­ta­sise, why project fail­ure? We may think we are be­ing adult and hon­est, but what we are ac­tu­ally do­ing is suck­ing out the fun of trav­el­ling hope­fully.

It starts with this ‘ Eng­land man­ager: the im­pos­si­ble job’ non­sense. No, it isn’t. Per­haps for those who pick un­fit play­ers, un­tried 17-year-olds or Carl­ton

Palmer, but not for Capello, as he proved in qual­i­fy­ing.

If he can with­stand the might of Slove­nia, Al­ge­ria and the United States, Capello needs to get through four matches to win a tro­phy and can call on some of the finest play­ers in Europe to help him. That is still dif­fi­cult, but not im­pos­si­ble. No­body de­mands he win it with North Korea. That’s im­pos­si­ble. This is not a ral­ly­ing cry for false as­sur­ance. At the last World Cup, when Eng­land stank the place out but scram­bled to the quar­ter-fi­nals, Fer­di­nand talked up the chances of ul­ti­mate tri­umph against all ev­i­dence.

‘If we won the World Cup play­ing badly, no­body would care,’ he said. He did not com­pre­hend that no team wins the World Cup play­ing badly. A few ropey games at the start, maybe, but, af­ter that, raise your game or go home, as Eng­land duly did.

Clearly there needed to be a re­ac­tion against the com­pla­cency of 2006, un­der­lined by the for­est of au­to­bi­ogra­phies that served as a post­script, each in­tended as the cof­fee ta­ble com­pan­ion to mo­men­tous per­sonal achieve­ment.

So a re­al­ity check, yes, but why so joy­less? It would seem that this year the pre­ferred out­look is the stud­ied lan­guor of the only grownup in the vil­lage. Home in on the flaws, pick apart the weak­nesses, a con­temp­tu­ous curled lip at the ready for the first sign of op­ti­mism. Where is the plea­sure in that?

Who wants to be proved right when the sullen pre­dic­tion is an­other sum­mer of frus­tra­tion and fail­ure? It is as if we are in­sur­ing against de­feat by get­ting our negativity in f i rst. ‘ Deny that hap­pi­ness is open as an op­tion, and dis­ap­point­ment dis­ap­pears overnight.’ That’s the Pet Shop Boys again. (The song is called

Mis­er­ab­lism, if you’re in­ter­ested. It’s a satir­i­cal poke at Mor­ris­sey. Half-de­cent remix by Moby, too.)

But there is a mid­dle ground. Tub-thump­ing was the tra­di­tional pre­lude to an in­ter­na­tional foot­ball tour­na­ment in Eng­land and all that Harry and St Ge­orge guff can grow tire­some af­ter 44 years of com­ing home early. Yet while this might not have been the most so­phis­ti­cated method of anal­y­sis, it did at least walk on the sunny side of the street.

Is it too si mple-minded to em­brace that now? Amid all the clichés and the but­ton-press­ing, the tub-thumpers at least tried to ad­vance rea­sons why Eng­land could suc­ceed. And there are usu­ally more than a few, as there are again this time if we only had half a mind to look.

We three kings (left to right): Frank Lam­pard, John Terry and Wayne Rooney are among the world’s best

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