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The stark fact that England must face
by Ridge Mahoney, November 29th, 2007 7AM
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'Tis the season to dump on English soccer, so here we go, with the proviso that for about the past decade it has been my contention that the blast and dazzle of the English Premier League has so mesmerized certain fans, managers and players they believe only cheating opponents, diabolic refereeing decisions and haphazard preparations have prevented England from World Cup success.

The stark fact is England can't win the World Cup because its players aren't good enough. The caliber of foreign players and raucous environments and furious pace is why the Premier League is so compelling, yet it's still true the very best South American players and cream of the continentals play somewhere else, and the English play in England not solely for the money, but for lack of demand elsewhere.

When Cristiano Ronaldo can dominate the EPL so impressively he wins Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year award in the same season, but can't rate a serious mention for European and world honors, it's an indication that those who believe English players can stand alongside the best are fooling themselves.

Aside from a few - Steven Gerrard, John Terry and ??? - they don't deserve to be included on an All-World squad of 23, let alone the starting XI.

While it's true a national team can be - and should be - greater than the sum of its parts, there's a baseline of talent, skill, savvy and experience needed to beat the top teams.

And it's also true the English FA erred badly in entrusting its national team to Sven Goran Eriksson for six years, and to Steve McLaren for 18 months. Their shortcomings didn't help, but when a sharpie like Otto Rehhagel can coax a European Championship out of a very modest pool of Greek players, as he did in 2004, there's proof that managing a national team requires more than mindless inanities uttered to the press.

After England thumped Russia and Israel by 3-0 scores in September, McLaren rhapsodized about "the quality" on the rosters of those two teams. Fact is, no Israeli or Russian player would start for England, and yes Youssi Benayoun (Liverpool) and Tal Ben Haim (Chelsea) of Israel are very good EPL players. That's the point.

Croatia is a different story, as the English found out, too late, last week, when much of the pre-match coverage in England fixated on the misconception no Croatian could crack the English first XI.

Wrong. A Niko Kranjcar or Dario Srna would certainly liven up Eng-er-land, and neither of those very capable players is truly top-tier.

Look at the cream of the crop from the 2006 World Cup: Ronaldinho, Kaka, Robinho, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Buffon, Tomas Rosicky, Peter Cech, Franck Ribery, Michael Essien, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Iker Casillas, Cesc Fabregas, Esteban Cambiasso, Javier Mascherano, Lionel Messi, etc.

The list of English players that compare favorably to these men is short indeed. Sorry, that's the way it is. You'd think one of the few England players to prosper abroad, David Beckham, would realize that. If he does, he isn't saying so publicly.

"There must be something wrong with English football," he said after a stunning 3-2 defeat at Wembley knocked England on its smug, self-satisfied rear end. "We're a nation with some of the best players in the world and we should be qualifying, no matter what. There can be no excuses."

Nowhere is the deficiency more glaring in the back line, where England has sprinters (Ashley Cole) and rugged battlers (Terry) and pitifully few soccer players in the mold of Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Walter Samuel, Lucio, Eric Abidal, Phillip Lahm, Javier Zanetti, and others.

Rio Ferdinand is the closest thing England has to a skillful defender, but he loses concentration at inopportune moments, like when he's supposed to report for a drug test.

Or take the role of holding midfielder, doled out to Gareth Barry for the crucial against Croatia. Would you prefer him, or Owen Hargreaves, to Gattuso, Mascherano, Essien, Claude Makelele (France), Yaya Toure (Ivory Coast), Costinha or Maniche (Portugal), Torsten Frings (Germany)? Uh, no. Heck, our Mexican friend PAVEL PARDO is a better player; not in the sense he'd light it up in the Premier League, but in his toughness, reading of the game, and skill on the ball.

Liverpool has reached two Champions' League finals in the past three years thanks to a talented foreign crop. It thrashed Porto, 4-1, yesterday, with two Englishmen - Jamie Carragher and Gerrard - in the starting lineup. Peter Crouch came on as a sub and got the fourth goal, after Spaniard Fernando Torres notched the first two and Gerrard put away a penalty.

As a Chelsea fan, I'd love to say Frank Lampard deserves to be ranked among the world's elite, but honesty forbids. Measure him against the best Brazilians, Argentines, Italians, and even a few Spaniards and Portuguese and Africans, and he ain't there.

Sunderland manager and former Irish international Roy Keane, a cantankerous boat-rocker during his playing days, blamed failure on the players' egos, and mentioned their droopy body language and moping faces as indications they weren't having fun.

Well, fun aside, they surely weren't convinced of their manager's personnel and tactical acumen, but perhaps, deep down inside, they also knew that despite the insane expectations of their fans and strident boosterism from pundits a'plenty, they don't quite measure up.

 



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