Take a moment to recall the atmosphere the last time England’s World Cup prospects teetered on the brink at the group stage. Rewind four years and a spluttering draw against the USA and a dismal goalless repeat against Algeria had left Fabio Capello’s side third in their section. A group of senior players had sat up in Cape Town over a rare beer and grumbled their frustration. Back at the team’s isolated Royal Bafokeng Sports complex the next day, with the decisive third game against Slovenia looming large, it was John Terry who suggested the time had come for the squad to clear the air with the hard-line management.
“The players can say how they feel and, if it upsets him, then I’m on the verge of just saying: ‘You know what? So what?’” said Terry, who had been deposed as captain by Capello earlier that year, before a planned team meeting that evening. “If we can’t be honest with each other, then there’s no point us being here.” In the end the Chelsea defender was warned off expressing his dissatisfaction by team-mates alarmed by his press briefing, the Italian reasserting his authority in the process, but the threat of mutiny summed up a dispiriting campaign. England retain precious few happy memories of South Africa.
Fast-forward to the present day and Roy Hodgson’s team are involved in an even more anxious game of catch-up. Beaten by Italy in Manaus, they confront Uruguay dayon Thursday knowing a second defeat could be terminal and ensure a first three-game World Cup campaign in 60 years. And yet, while the implications of defeat are lost on no one, the mood remains buoyant.
“Spain lost their first game four years ago and ended up winning the World Cup,” said Frank Lampard. “I’m not proclaiming we’re going to do that but it can be done to different extents. Italy was one game in which we didn’t play terribly. We’re not suddenly sitting here in the doldrums thinking: ‘Where are we going to get this win from?’ We’re actually looking forward and thinking that, if we can do that and also do a bit more, we can certainly beat most teams in front of us.”
The contrasts with South Africa are already pronounced. Where Capello put his trust in the ritiro, closeting his players away from the outside world in their hotel between matches, Hodgson and Club England have learned lessons. Sure, there is extensive and, occasionally, intrusive security. The team coach is accompanied by a cavalcade of military vehicles as it goes from their luxury 418-apartment hotel on São Conrado beach to the training camp at Urca, itself in a naval base. Yet, within the confines of the Royal Tulip itself, players are free to wander and mingle with other guests. The presence of Gus Poyet, in Brazil as a pundit, in the lobby on Tuesday went blissfully unnoticed where once the Uruguayan might have been considered a spy in the camp.
England may have two floors of the building allocated to their 72-strong party alone, with games rooms adjacent to the Football Association’s improvised administrative nerve centre, but players trundle past the communal bar area en route to their private dining room. They can take visits from family, friends, even agents in the public areas of the hotel, which is open for business as normal.
Royal Bafokeng’s facility, a five-star oasis in a wilderness of bush and platinum mines, had been for England’s exclusive use which merely added to the sense of isolation. Terry and Wayne Rooney had complained of boredom as, snooker, darts or pool aside, there was precious little to do. The flags outside the complex aside, the World Cup seemed distant. In Rio de Janeiro, with its street bars and fan fests along the front, it is impossible to escape the tournament. The squad actually feel involved.
There is contentment, too, at the methods employed by the manager and his coaching staff. The build-up to the last tournament had been dominated by the Italian’s ill-conceived Capello Index, an online rating system for all players at the finals, including his own, and then his vague interest in taking the Internazionale job, which actually earned him a new contract. An extreme training camp in the Alps hardly helped, indecision over the identity of his first-choice goalkeeper proved unsettling and his autocratic style grated. Hodgson has leaned willingly on Steven Gerrard’s and Lampard’s input, as well as that of Gary Neville. There is no “us and them”. Given the number of youngsters in the squad, personnel who freely admit to looking up to the seniors, such an approach seems sensible. Even after a loss.
“I wouldn’t say the mood has changed within the group, even after Italy,” said Gerrard. “We still have belief and confidence. You have a huge game to kick off your tournament and you come out with nothing, so it is natural pressure grows. Expectation grows. It is normal for a bit of panic to set in from the outside. People start thinking the worst but, for us players, we have to be strong and cope with that. Put that to the back of our minds and focus on the good things we did against Italy. We were frustrated rather than sad. Frustrated because we didn’t get anything from the game. But, talking among ourselves and with the staff, we all realise there were positives in the game.”
Things may change if the worst happens at the Arena Corinthians. Elimination tends to open up even the most minute of cracks, after all. But, at present, the contented mood is maintained by a squad enjoying their World Cup experience. “I am absolutely loving being in this position,” added Gerrard. “These are the games you want to be involved in as a player.” In South Africa all was tense. Here it remains thrilling.