India could well beat Beckham and Co.

THE emotional turbulence of its most precocious face, and the rational befuddlement of its most socially and professionally acceptable name, sums up the current state of England's most popular game.

The defeat to Northern Ireland — 120 in the FIFA World rankings (to put things in perspective, a little more than 10 places above India) and more importantly a region that is considered by most Englishmen a `modern colony' — frustrated young Wayne Rooney to unimaginable limits. In addition to kicking the ball at a Northern Ireland striker and thundering into a rival defender, Rooney verbally abused the referee, and added captain David Beckham, midfielder Steven Gerrard and defender Rio Ferdinand to the expletive guest list. We now know what he exactly meant when he said after England had plummeted to a 1-4 defeat in Copenhagen in a friendly against Denmark, "It was a horrible experience to have to sit through that. I hope it never happens again."

Michael Owen, who was England's poorly fed lone striker in the disastrous outing in Belfast thanks to Sven Goran Eriksson's sudden experimentation with a 4-5-1 formation and a midfield diamond, is too much of a `nice boy' to show frustration. However, the man who at 25 years has scored 32 international goals, could not resist this terse two-liner: "Until the day football stops, the most important thing will be scoring goals. I am confident of my position in the team and my value to it." Yes, he was talking about England, and not his previous club, Real Madrid.

The midfield diamond, which emphasises on packing the central midfield at the expense of the strike force, might work wonders for other European countries such as France and Italy as it does for top European clubs and those English clubs run by Spanish and Portuguese managers. But, the basic instinct of English football has always been to attack, certainly not in the stylistic mould of Latin America but in a very physical, scrappy and trenchant manner though it must be said that the aesthetics of Owen's game is closer to Latin America than Liverpool, where he was the leading scorer for a long time till he left last season for Real Madrid.

By going against the very nature of English football, Eriksson, who managed Lazio to European and Italian Cup triumphs before taking up the England job in early 2001, has for the first time played into the hands of those xenophobic and nationalist forces who have been howling for his blood right from day one of his reign.

Sacrificing a natural attacking force like Rooney in Belfast to a position behind Owen to suit the demands of the new formation was certainly a blunder. But, to be fair to England's Swedish manager, the new formation — which was first tried out in the disastrous Denmark friendly and continued in England's lucky 1-0 win over Wales in the World Cup Qualifying match in Cardiff a few days before the Northern Ireland fiasco — was necessitated to demarcate the roles played by two key men in the heart of the midfield and who have remarkably similar strengths, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard and Chelsea mastermind Frank Lampard. In the traditional 4-4-2 formation, as Eriksson said, Lampard and Gerrard tended to do the same things the moment England ran into trouble.

Both men have been woefully out of form in the new season for both clubs and country, and if Eriksson has to win against Austria and group leaders Poland at home in early October to put England directly in Germany next summer he has to abandon the experiment sooner than later. If Eriksson does not take a high-profile stand, and allows things to drift as he does from time to time, he will not only be putting his job on the line but also exploding the significance that 2006 has in English public imagination — a World Cup triumph in the 40th year of the Wembley win in a country which was England's opponent in the 1966 Final.

At a time when England's cricketers, led by inspirational all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, have pushed Beckham and Co. to sporting peripheries, there will be no greater humiliation to English football next summer than large number of sport lovers of the dominant Anglo Saxon community congregating to watch cricket action against Sri Lanka and Pakistan in the event of England not making it to Germany 2006 just like USA 1994.

The crisis in the national team's performance comes at a time when English club football is far from being in the pink of health. A 2004 study by a think tank pinpoints high-priced tickets, falling attendances, dwindling television viewership, saturated TV deals and bloated wage structure as factors which do not augur well for the future of club football in the country.

Somewhere in the recess of his mind, Owen, who has just returned to club football in his country, might be linking the fall in attendance to the drop in the number of goals.