A menaced World Cup

David Beckham with England team coach Fabio Capello. Off the field, Beckham has become a kind of deity, admired as an ambassador, leading England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup and it would be interesting to see if he is named in the 2010 World Cup squad.-AP

Over the whole tournament, alas, which surely should never have been planned in crime-ridden South Africa with its appalling rate of murders, hovers the shadow of criminality and violence. A fearful threat to all but the closely guarded teams and their officials. Journalists at the Confederations Cup and even at the recent World Cup draw have already suffered. By Brian Glanville.

It couldn’t happen again, could it? Well actually it could, though it wouldn’t be as remotely such a traumatising surprise; such a monumental, humiliating, never, never to be forgotten humiliation for English football. I am, of course, going way back to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in the 1950 World Cup and the all but inexplicable defeat of a powerful English side — Bert Williams in goal, Alf Ramsey, Martensen, Mannion, Billy Wright — by a USA team of obscurities. In fact, the right-half and skipper was a Scotsman called Eddie Millvenny, who had just been given a free transfer by Wrexham of the Third Division North.

Yet, a single goal which went in, by accident or design, off the head of the USA centre-forward, Joe Gaetjens, was enough to give his team the game. Later, poor fellow, the Haitian would be murdered in his own country by the brutal Tonton Macoutes. There was a lively left-wing pair in the shape of John, an accomplished inside-forward, and Ed Souza — no relations. Both from Fall River, where there was something of a Portuguese colony addicted to soccer. By sharp contrast with the USA at large, which barely noticed the sensational result.

Now, in their opening group game, England meet the USA for a second time in a World Cup, though this is a very different USA. Though soccer there remains very much a minor sport, the Major League Soccer, so-called, is very much professional, and numerous Americans are playing pro in Europe. Oddly enough, one of the team’s leading figures, the attacker Landon Donovan, has twice tried and failed in the Bundesliga. He it was who, not long ago, in a book by a journalist, dared to criticise his team-mate at the Los Angeles Galaxy, David Beckham, for scant commitment.

Will Beckham be in the England squad? In fact, off the field, he has become a kind of deity, admired as an ambassador, leading England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup. But at a moment when far younger, far faster English right-wingers are proliferating — Spurs’ electric Aaron Lennon, Manchester City’s dynamic Shaun Wright-Phillips, the ultra versatile James Milner of Aston Villa, splendid not only on both wings and now even in central-midfield, where, logically, is there room for Beckham? Don’t, however, count on the seemingly obsessed Fabio Capello passing him by.

With Slovenia — don’t forget their remarkable late group victory away to the leaders, Slovakia — and Algeria making up the group, England are largely expected to cruise through at will. Yet, with 39-year-old ’keeper David James constantly being injured and not a single younger challenger in sight — Ben Foster is now number three at Manchester United, Rio Ferdinand, a doubtful, often, himself injured, this season, the centre-back Joe Cole, whose sudden return to Chelsea and his original role as playmaker, sporadically dropped by his own manager Ancelotti, despite impressive form, I cannot see England as favourites.

Not that I think Capello would have been bold enough to recall Cole, so often an England either flank winger, as playmaker, anyhow. But I hope he will conquer his obsessions with Emile Heskey up front; as a kind of space making valet to the excellent Wayne Rooney. Seldom in the Villa team, and so rarely scoring when he is.

Jermain Defoe of Spurs is so plainly England’s quickest and most penetrative striker — as he proved against Holland, let alone with his five against Wigan — even if this would mean Capello changing his somewhat laborious pattern up front. Don’t, meanwhile, forget that in the Confederations Cup, USA actually beat powerful Spain 2-0, defending doughtily and exploiting the positional errors of the over adventurous Spanish full-backs.

Spain though really seem, among this unexciting field, the team to succeed. Their group — oh, these groups and the bloated 32 team World Cup entry where once there were but a blessed 16! — includes hardly minatory foes in Honduras, Chile and the Swiss.

The Spanish midfield of busy, clever, incisive little men is surely the best of them all: Iniesta, Xavi, Alonso, the man Liverpool miss so much. Plus Cesc Fabregas of Arsenal should they want him. Plus the tall, explosive Fernando Torres if his groin stands up: and the electric Villa even if it doesn’t.

Over the whole tournament, alas, which surely should never have been planned in crime-ridden South Africa with its appalling rate of murders, hovers the shadow of criminality and violence. A fearful threat to all but the closely guarded teams and their officials. Journalists at the Confederations Cup and even at the recent World Cup draw have already suffered.

Hard on its heels, a new warning was sounded by a former senior policeman in England, not long ago a detective superintendent in the British National Crime Squad. Neil Thompson said: “I’ve lived in Cape Town for the last two and a half years and know the standard of the police is dropping. There will be an awful lot of extra police (41,000 of them) at the World Cup who we do not think will have enough training. How are the police going to bring these extra officers up to the required standards in seven or eight months?”

Brazil, as usual, are highly quoted though theirs is perhaps the only tough group involving one of the favoured teams. We can, I think, forget North Korea, involved at last in the World Cup finals for the first time since their wonderfully gallant and astonishing feats in England in 1966, when they beat Italy 1-0 and actually led Portugal 3-0 after 20 minutes of the quarterfinal, losing 5-3; against Eusebio. But the Ivory Coast attack is led by formidable Didier Drogba, while if only Cristiano Ronaldo strikes form, Portugal could be a threat. Brazil, under Dunga’s aegis, are solid to a degree but, for me, Kaka is their only refulgent star.

If only Argentina and their seemingly hypnotised President and patron Julio Grondona could get rid of Diego Maradona, hysterically abusive of the Argentine journalists after scraping through in Montevideo, culpable for infinite mistakes, not least when Bolivia thrashed his team 6-1 on the heights of La Paz.

Lionel Messi is European Footballer of the Year; this despite the fact that while shining for Barcelona, it seems he simply switches off under Maradona. Greece, Nigeria and South Korea must hope Maradona stays.

Italy’s group seems comfortably negotiable, but the Cup holders lack both youth and flair. The ever rebellious and dissident Antonio Cassano, brought up in the slums of Bari, now at Sampdoria, could give them the dash and flair they need; but manager Marcello Lippi will have none of him and his potential antics.