Flags of our Fathers – Gearing up for the World Cup takes little motivation. It just needs a little ignition, and the euphoric optimism of drunken people with flags and plastic hats will do the rest. Last night’s warm up/send off friendly with Mexico was all about getting the Wembley crowd to forget the domestic season just gone, and fully engaged, ready and patriotized for the festival du foot that awaits us in South Africa. The powers that be had ladled it on thick with a record breaking attempt to make an all encompassing St George’s flag out of men in (thankfully large) T-shirts, and as Baddiel & Skinner’s anthemic No.1 blared through the PA system, and the faithful struggled to remember which version this was, or any of the words that weren’t the chorus, it was hard not to get caught up in it all. There was even a spontaneous ovation for some soldiers who’d arrived late to their seats and should anyone have forgotten how great a chance we stand this summer, they needn’t have looked further than the back of the person in front of them, as the shirts themselves reminded us of our brave boy’s glorious achievements en route against the mighty warriors of Andorra, Kazakhstan and Belarus. Why if that didn’t inspire us all to believe then what would? …No seriously. What would?
Same as it ever was – Not the football. Because in a fitting way, the night prophetically encapsulated the most overwhelmingly likely experience of World Cup ’10 for us English, and indeed the shared experience of all England fans at international tournaments for as many years as can be helpfully suffixed by the words “..of hurt” in the seemingly never-ending re-released versions of Three Lions. Essentially, one long optimistic carnival of red and white, inflatable balls and Mexican waves, unavoidably let down by England’s inability to cobble together any type of interesting football. For the first 45 minutes Mexico ran rings round us. Pretty useless rings as it turned out, but pretty rings nonetheless.
You spin me right round – The odd central midfield pairing of James Milner (bafflingly positioned centrally whilst Stevie G struggled to be either interested or interesting out wide) and Michael Carrick (struggling to remember even himself why he’s still in the national set up) were overrun by some tricky little Mexican fellas. As almost every Tom, Dick and Deano who called into Five Live and Talksport pointed out, if this had been Spain, we would’ve been annihilated before the first Mexican wave had even caught on. (Which, incidentally, was about 2 minutes in…We were playing Mexico after all.)
Band of Banditos – These instinctive pessimistic reactions should be tempered however, by the knowledge that this Mexican side has had far more preparation than us. For a start they’ve been together for a matter of months not weeks, and furthermore this team is comprised largely of the same players who won the U-17 World Championship in 2005. This makes them sort of like the South American equivalent of Fergie’s Fledgings, each knowing each others movement, rhythm and favorite Spice Girl intimately. There’s no shame in being less cohesive than them, but there’s a little shame in showing no cohesion at all.
Size Matters – In the end England persevered towards a massively flattering score line by virtue of having much bigger people than Mexico did. Trevor Brooking’s oft spouted criticism that our youth systems are fundamentally flawed in giving preference to the early bloomers and big lumps ahead of the technical kids and tricky midgets is never more aptly justified than during England matches. We won this game by knocking high balls in and muscling them out of the way when we couldn’t get passed them. Peter Crouch’s goal for example – apart from being both a handball and offside – was scored entirely by virtue of him being bigger than their keeper. And even then he couldn’t even get his head on it.
Too many Crooks.. – Fabio Capello’s English seems to have gotten worse. But I’m convinced this is purely a tactic to avoid Garth Crook’s questions.
What’s the Story? Prawn in Sorbet – The people who organized the whole big flag business are actually quite clever. Not only did they arrange the logistics so that the little Mexican patch of green in the corner combined with the lower tier’s red and white to create their own little flag within our bigger one, but they also anticipated Club Wembley’s consistently annoying obsession with canapé’s and free drinks and so laid out the red cross across them. This meant the large swath of empty red seats that enjoyed Glen Johnson’s early second half goal cunningly completed the aesthetic anyway. Genius. Or completely unintended coincidence, which given Wembley and the FA’s track record, is by far the more likely.
Risky Business – After switching Gerrard to the center and bringing on Defoe (and then Lennon) for a bit of pace, we looked considerably better in the second half. However to my – and presumably everyone else’s – constant dismay, Don Fabio refused to bring Rooney off, causing every challenge made on him, every 50-50 ball he contested and every slightly over exuberant track back over Wembley’s hazardous terrain to be hugely worrying for everyone. At one point he stayed down for a whole 3 seconds, which seemed like an age at the time and almost certainly caused some of my hair to fall out (I’m blaming it on that anyway.) It didn’t help that James Milner seemed obsessed with playing hospital balls to people, which may have been a neat subconscious ploy to reduce his competition for the final 23, but was also terrible, especially on a pitch that did it’s usual disappearing act midway through the first half.
Three Lions on the dirt – The Chelsea boys were supposedly given the game off after the exhausting effort of beating Portsmouth, but in reality it was clearly because playing two games in two weeks on the Wembley grass is worse for your health than Total Wipeout with Richard Hammond (the show or the crash) or indeed, being Ledley King.
Leaving, on a jet plane – And so England jet off and stumble on, unconvincingly, uninspiringly, but still somehow winning in that pragmatic Capello way that gives us all hope of actual achievement this time around. The people who think Mourinho grinds out undeserving results should try and watch England play at Wembley. Or on second thoughts, don’t. Onwards and upwards. Things can only get better, as the Labour Party once said, and look what they…Oh. Er…Carry on.
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