By Paul Gardner
As various American players are recovering their physical fitness in time to play in the World Cup -- think Clint Dempsey, Stuart Holden, Oguchi Onyewu, even Charlie Davies -- it seems that events are taking a rather different direction for England -- the team that the USA will face in its first game.
As we are all aware, very much so, the man himself, David Beckham, suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon two months back which meant the sudden end of his involvement in England’s World Cup plans. True, it was not absolutely certain that Coach Fabio Capello would include him, but it seemed likely.
A more recent disturbance to Capello’s plans came a week ago when Manchester City’s midfielder Gareth Barry picked up an ankle injury. He has not played since, and his coach, Roberto Mancini, has defined Barry’s situation as “not good,” hinting that he may be sidelined for as much as a month. That, in turn, means that Barry would just about be returning to full fitness as the World Cup begins.
Bad news indeed for Capello, for Barry has been the team’s regular defensive, or holding, midfielder throughout the qualifying games. What doesn’t help matters for England is that there is no obvious replacement for Barry. Possible choices include two Manchester United players: Michael Carrick, who is playing poorly, and another injury victim, Owen Hargreaves, who has been out for 19 months recovering from operations on both his knees.
But a bigger worry for England concerns the fitness of its key player, Wayne Rooney. This is a disturbing story. During Manchester United’s first leg Champions League quarterfinal game against Bayern Munich in March, Rooney landed awkwardly on his right ankle. The television replays did not look good, and it was rumored that Rooney had broken his ankle. Coach Alex Ferguson soon contradicted such gloomy predictions, though he did admit that Rooney would be out for two to three weeks.
So it came as a major surprise when, a week later, Rooney’s name was on the lineup sheet for the crucial return game with Bayern. It looked as though Ferguson had been playing mind games -- Rooney played well enough for nearly an hour, but he was then substituted. A disastrous evening for ManU, which let in two goals from Bayern, and was eliminated from the tournament. Then came new fears that Rooney had aggravated his injury.
Not quite -- but the injury report was anything but reassuring. The new information was that Rooney now also had a groin injury and would miss the rest of the season. But then came another miraculous recovery. With a crucial game coming up -- this time it was yesterday’s final game of the season against Stoke City, one that ManU had to win to retain any hope at all of winning the league -- Rooney was once again deemed fit enough to play.
More deja vu. Another negative outing for ManU -- which beat Stoke but conceded the EPL title to Chelsea, which swamped Wigan, 8-0. And, once again, Rooney limped off the field, substituted in the 77th minute, and having, from all appearances, worsened his injury.
Alex Ferguson quickly confirmed that to be the case, but dismissed it as a minor matter -- “I don’t think it’s serious, he should be OK for England.” Without a doubt, Rooney will be in Capello’s squad -- but will he be fit in time for the June 12 game against the USA?
Should Rooney not play in that game, the USA’s chances of a victory would appear to be much greater -- but that may not be the case. Without Rooney -- and perhaps with the possibility of Rooney being fit for subsequent games -- it would be more than likely that England would be quite satisfied with a draw in that opening game. England, coached by an Italian, playing for a draw would not be an easy opponent for the USA to break down.
Ferguson’s puzzling maneuvers with Rooney raise a disturbing question. Why would Ferguson be risking a player who was evidently not fit? The same question that had been asked of Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger back in March, when he fielded a questionably fit Cesc Fabregas against Barcelona (Fabregas suffered an injury that finished his season).
The realpolitik says, flatly, that Ferguson should not give a damn about England and the World Cup, his responsibility is to do what’s right for ManU. Similarly, Wenger’s first concern must be for Arsenal, not for Spain’s World Cup hopes. Awkward thoughts, those -- made doubly uncomfortable by the fact that Ferguson is Scottish, not English, and Wenger is French, not Spanish.
There lurks further mischief in such situations, which is the temptation to use medicines (I do not think drugs is the right term) to help players perform while nursing injury.
The long-standing tug-of-war between club and country for a player’s body is as thorny a problem as ever. In fact, at this time of the soccer calendar, as the World Cup finals approach, it is at its thorniest ever. Here comes the world’s major sporting event -- and a large number of the world’s greatest players, the main attractions, are either injured, or recovering from injury, or simply too worn out to be really fit.
A situation that is born of greed, pure and simple. The clubs play as many games as possible to make as much money as possible. Comes the World Cup, they hand over damaged players to the World Cup, where they must play a concentrated few weeks of high-pressure games so that still more money can be made. This time by FIFA and television and a whole crowd of commercial subsidiaries. But don’t feel too sorry for the players. They make a lot of money out of the World Cup as well.