International friendly - England v Hungary, Wembley, Weds 11th Aug 8pm
Three major European nations came a cropper in South Africa.
Italy's ageing heroes went down fighting to Slovakia but could not stop the holders going home after the first round. France imploded in mutinous rancour, while England scraped through the group stage only to be humiliated by a rampant young Germany side.
Raymond Domenech and Marcello Lippi exited stage left but Fabio Capello remained in his job. There was little option for the Football Association, given that they had put pen to paper with a hefty two-year contract extension, the cancellation of which have cost them a pretty penny. Capello's admission that he expected failure in Africa while hastily jettisoning his employers' escape clause has cast him in a mercenary light.
Tomorrow at Wembley he returns to the limelight for the first time since his team and his reputation as a great coach were battered into the soil of Bloemfontein. With some irony, England's first opponents after their worst ever World Cup debacle are the ones who first exposed the Three Lions' tactical shortcomings and slew the myth of English invincibility.
Before 1953, England were still widely considered 'the masters' of the game in 1953 when the Mighty Magyars, the reigning Olympic champions, showed up at Wembley. Little did the 105,000 spectators coming through the gates know that a footballing trauma was in the offing, and some of them were surely still making their way through the turnstiles when Nandor Hidegkuti fired past Gil Merrick in the opening minute. If they had entered in hope they left in horror and stunned admiration.
To say Hungary's 6-3 victory was a jolt to the English psyche would be an understatement. The Three Lions went into soccer shellshock having being out-thought and out-gunned for 90 minutes by a team light years ahead in formation and tactics. 57 painful years (1966 apart) since that historic first home defeat by an overseas nation, what have we learnt? Barely six weeks ago, England were once again embarrassed by the superior tactics of a fellow European nation, as Germany exposed the obsolete rigidity of their favoured formation.
For the WM read 442, the latter shape now clearly bypassed by the 4231. Uruguay, it is true, took fourth place at the World Cup playing 442 but with a fluidity and technical finesse England's heavy legs could not match. While 442 is a shape easily-understandable to players, the gaps it leaves between its lines and the holes it leaves in midfield were starkly exposed in South Africa.
Capello has wisely shown a willingness to listen by immediately selecting a slew of young guns for his first friendly fixture since Bloemfontein, but the nagging doubt remains that England's current crop do not have the footballing brains to reach the level of Spain, the Netherlands or their conquerors, Germany.
Sven-Goran Eriksson let slip in private that he thought English players were not intelligent enough to compete for the big prizes, lacking the mental flexibility to adapt to different playing systems and understand the phases of the game.
Eriksson is largely considered a mild failure for guiding England to two World Cup quarter-finals, yet with the hindsight of two successive coaching calamities, his reign appears all the more impressive.
There is some truth in the accusation that England still think 'attack, attack, attack' when the going gets rough. When Germany scored their decisive third with 23 minutes remaining, there were nine red shirts buzzing around the opposing box, the sort of numbers you should only hurl forward in injury time.
England's limitations are exemplified by the almost identically speedy yet uncreative wingers they took to South Africa. Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips hared up the flanks but produced next to nothing of note, while Theo Walcott, left at home, is cut from the same cloth, famously lacking a footballing brain as Chris Waddle said.
While Germany's ace was their razor-sharp counter-attacking strategy, a move clearly honed on the training field, England were looking to their stars Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard to conjure up moments of magic, which never arrived.
In their fascinating book, 'Why England Lose', financial writers Simon Kuper and Stefan Szyminski argue that soccer success at the international level is dependent on a combination of population, GDP and an amorphous factor they call 'football experience'. While this explains Germany's and Brazil's historic triumphs it does not account for the prowess of the Netherlands, a country a third the size of England and with similar GDP but less football experience, who have reached three World Cup Finals and won the European Championship.
It remains the case that England's national football culture stresses individual endeavour and physical prowess above team telepathy. Greece proved in Euro 2004 that you do not need the best players to triumph in the end but rather a system that works so well the individuals melt into the background. The most impressive England performance in living memory, the 4-1 demolition of Holland at Euro '96, was clearly down to Terry Venables' inspired system, and prompted no less than Guus Hiddink, the Dutch coach that evening, to claim - "They taught us a lesson in possession and the use of space" - England?
Until the national mindset from school level upwards is changed to one of 'team first, me last', England will surely continue to disappoint at the highest level. It may take years before they can win a World Cup, but they cannot short-cut the process. The FA always promise a root-and-branch reform of the game after an exit or failure to qualify for a tournament, yet one never materialises as officials keep their heads down and avoid the blame and the national team quietly goes back to its ineffective practices.
England needs far more clubs and players, far more qualified coaches at all levels and a sea-change in the coaching mentality towards tactical sophistication and away from the fixation with 'passion', 'belief' and what the Itailans call fantasistas.
So while England will probably beat Hungary on Wednesday and sail through to Euro 2012, a similar fate to South Africa awaits in Eastern Europe in two years' time. History teaches us that English football's expectations mask a stark reality. In order to win Euro 2012, Capello, whose biography Gabriele Marcotti bravely subtitled 'Portrait of a Winner', really needs a miracle.
- Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile