“The coverage has been fantastic” squealed an over-excited guest on BBC Radio 5 live. Of course, she wasn’t talking about the latest “Mission: Impossible” outing of England’s soccer team in the Euro 2012 qualifiers. The ongoing rescue of 33 Chilean miners, trapped underground since 5 August, tends to dwarf the efforts of 22 footballers playing out a sterile draw at Wembley Stadium. It boils down to human interest vs. the not remotely interesting.
As they emerge into the sunlight, the doughty Chileans will find that much has changed since their incarceration began—anonymity is certainly a thing of the past. But, in a changing world, it’s comforting to know that Fabio “the Communicator” Capello and his not-so-merry men can be relied upon to fall into yet another pit of their own making. As they left the field after a goalless draw with Montenegro, the reception was in marked contrast to the enthusiasm which has greeted the heroes of the San Jose mine.
If Capello thought that the vexed issue of the England captaincy had gone away, he was sadly mistaken. Once it became clear that central defender Rio Ferdinand would be in the starting line-up for the first time since May, media speculation about the armband went into overdrive. Steven Gerrard was acknowledged to have done a good job in Rio’s absence—except for the trifling matter of England’s tame exit from the World Cup. Would the tough-talking Italian’s diplomatic skills be up to resolving an issue of such earth-shattering importance? In the end, the man whose mantra is “I never change my rules’’, reinstated Ferdinand as skipper and was roundly criticised by those who felt he’d been stringing Gerrard along for the past month.
So what of England’s latest opponents in Group G? Back in the ’80s, Montenegro was the title of a daring erotic comedy drama in which a bored American expat in Sweden (played by Susan Anspach) hooks up with some free-living Yugoslavians for two nights of debauchery. As film critic Roger Ebert says, “There can be something absolutely liberating about a movie that makes up its rules as it goes along.”
Perhaps it was the spirit of Dusan Makavejev’s film that inspired the Montenegrin football captain Mirko Vucinic to strip to his “tighty whiteys” after scoring the winning goal against Switzerland last Friday. I’ve always thought that booking players for removing their shirts during goal celebrations was one of the game’s more idiotic rules. Now, after Vucinic’s uninhibited display of machismo—he wore the shorts on his head—you wonder just what anyone could do to top it.
Sadly, the injured Vucinic didn’t make it onto the field last night for Montenegro’s clash with England. Somehow, a little of the colour went out of a game that was already missing John Terry, Frank Lampard, Bobby Zamora, Phil Jagielka, Aaron Lennon and, let’s face it, anyone else who had something better to do on Tuesday evening. When England takes on one of Europe’s smaller footballing nations—Montenegro has a population of less than 700,000—they can’t really win. Even a resounding victory is likely to be greeted with scepticism when your opponents are ranked 40th in the world.
Rankings, though, are unreliable. Does anyone seriously think that England deserves to be sixth on FIFA’s current list? Montenegro had already chalked up 1-0 victories against Bulgaria, Switzerland and Wales and arrived at Wembley as the leaders of Group G.
England’s makeshift and injury-hit team really needed to kick some Montenegrin butt—not literally, of course. Some commentators optimistically suggested that the home fans in the crowd of 73,451 had now put the disappointments of South Africa behind them. A wildly off-base assumption if ever I heard one.
We needed goals and we needed Wayne Rooney to rediscover the knack of hitting the back of the net. Like John Terry earlier this year, Rooney is one English player who might actually have welcomed two months down a San Jose mineshaft, rather than several weeks at the centre of a media firestorm. Since the latest revelations about “Wazza” and ladies of the night—one of whom modestly describes herself as a “Catholic and a family person”—the Manchester United striker has been woefully out of form.