Reputation at stake

Risking Rooney as early as the second game against Trinidad was a desperate gesture, not least when Eriksson had initially promised Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, that Rooney, recovering from his recent metatarsal injury, would be deployed, if at all, only in the latter stages.

Whatever England may or may not do in this World Cup, any reputation retained by Sven-Goran Eriksson as an international manager surely lies in tatters. Above all for the cheap gimmick of picking the untried 17-year-old Theo Walcott; then not even having the courage to use him when he might have done. First against Paraguay in the England opener, when an out of form Michael Owen, so vital in World Cups to the side, but only when fully fit, was taken off and Walcott was the only striker in sight to replace him. For the very cogent reason that Eriksson, when choosing for his squad, a player who didn't get a single game for Arsenal since he joined them at a vast potential fee from Southampton, turned his back on at least three experienced English strikers who could at least have come off the bench; quick little Jermaine Defoe of Tottenham, Darren Brent of Charlton, each of whom has had international experience, especially Defoe, and Dean Ashton of West Ham, such a powerful figure in the FA Cup Final against Liverpool.

Risking Rooney as early as the second game against Trinidad was a desperate gesture, not least when Eriksson had initially promised an outraged Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, that Rooney, recovering from his recent metatarsal injury, would be deployed, if at all, only in the latter stages of the competition. In the event there is no doubt that the insertion of Rooney — and Owen coming off again — served to galvanise a previously flaccid English team which proceeded to score the couple of goals which made qualification for the second round a certainty. I am reminded with a somewhat similar situation before the World Cup of 1958 when England, having lost among other stars in Manchester United's Munich aircrash, their dashing centre-forward, Tommy Taylor, inexplicably took only 20 rather than the permitted 22 players to the finals in Sweden, omitting that formidable centre forward, Nat Lofthouse who had just scored both goals for Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup Final.

A few months after the World Cup in which Russia had eliminated England in a play-off, Lofthouse was back in the team, which got five goals against the Russians at Wembley.

History all but repeating itself? Alas it seems to have done so in the shape of the appalling, gratuitous foul by the Italian midfielder, Daniele De Rossi, when he brutally smashed his elbow into the face of the USA striker, Brian McBride, shedding much blood and himself instantly receiving a yellow card. There was not even the dubious excuse so often offered by such perpetrators that they were merely spreading out their arms to achieve height and balance when going to head the ball. It was all too horribly clear that De Rossi's was a total assault.

Yet such episodes alas stain the annals of Italian football across the decades. The odd things being that even when they have as cultivated a manager as polyglot Vittorio Posso, commissario tecnico for 20 years, winner of two pre-War World Cups, ruthless tough guts still find preference. Such as the thuggish Argentine Luisito Monti, whose broken toe in an early clash with the England centre forward Ted Drake — "He kicked me deliberately" accused Monti as he came off — sparked the notorious Battle of Highbury. During which the Italy right half deliberately smashed his elbow into the face of the inoffensive England left back and broke his nose; afterwards laughing in his face at the match banquet. "I'm glad I'm a pretty even tempered fellow," wrote Hapgood years later, "or I'd have gone over the table at him." Earlier that year when Italy won the World Cup on their own soil, they made few friends with their rugged methods.

More recently under the aegis of Enzo Bearzot, a classical student at school and in many ways an idealist, the Azzurri used such hard nuts as Claudio Gentile and Romeo Benetti, later promoting them to important coaching positions.

Gentile manhandled Maradona in the 1982 World Cup. Gentile and Benetti abused English players at Wembley in 1977 when Italy lost a World Cup qualifier 2-0. Peter Barnes on his debut as the England left winger told me Gentile knocked him down and snarled, "English pig" while Benetti threatened to break Kevin Keegan's leg! And when Enzo complained to me in Buenos Aires at the 1978 World Cup that Holland's Arie Haan had badly fouled the harmless Zaccarelli, it was only an instant after Haan himself had been maltreated by Benetti as he came up that touchline with the ball! Double standards indeed, though to be fair to the current Italy manager Marcello Lippi, he has not demonstrated them nor implicitly encouraged such shocking excesses as that by Daniele De Rossi. Meanwhile, though the Americans had two men sent off for grave but much lesser offences, they showed huge resilience and morale in hanging on to a draw with nine men against 10, veteran Kasey Keller once more showing what a gifted goalkeeper he is; that flying save from Alex del Piero was indeed memorable. But Argentina under Jose Pekerman look their best for years. And they have Lionel Messi, who is admired and applauded by none other than Diego Maradona.