The international picture

The way the English critics donned sackcloth and ashes after the 2-0 defeat by Spain in a friendly match in Seville surely flew in the face of logic, writes Brian Glanville.

After the recent welter of friendly internationals, what can we say about the state of world football? Friendlies, as we know, are not these days like the real thing, but they do give us some kind of guidance. Nevertheless, the way the English critics donned sackcloth and ashes after the 2-0 defeat by Spain in Seville surely flew in the face of logic.

Many a long year ago, I remember Walter Winterbottom, then the very long serving England manager, telling me that for any country to have a great team, they needed to have at least three outstanding players. I would humbly suggest that England so indeed have three such players, and none of them was playing in Seville. Those three of course are Rio Ferdinand, most mobile and decisive of centre-backs, Steven Gerrard, most dynamic of central-midfield players, and obviously Wayne Rooney, arguably the most-gifted English player of his generation, and the best guarantee of making or scoring goals with his power, pace, technique and flair. Well, none of them was to be seen in Seville.

In their absence, what was to be done? At centre-half we saw as sub, Mathew Upson, who had an excellent game in the previous international in Berlin, after scoring an easy first goal against Germany. But he was picked only in the absence of first choice players, and he had an abysmal game in the previous match against Belarus. With all respect to Upson, who cost Arsenal £1 million as a teenager who’d played just one match for Luton Town in the summer of 1997, I have never seen him as a defender of international quality. Nor did he look a bit like one in Seville, where he was badly culpable of Spain’s second goal, headed in without let or hindrance from a right-flank dead ball kick by the substitute striker, Llorente.

The other centre-back, Phil Jagielka, who played in the first-half before being substituted by Upson, was a debutant who also gave away a goal. His weak clearance enabled Spain to surge forward and he was completely outwitted by the gifted David Villa, who duly made it 1-0.

And England are still looking for a reliable goalkeeper. David “Calamity” James, as he has been cruelly nicknamed, was there again, fauta de mieux as the French say, in Seville where, in the first-half, he duly and all too typically dropped a deflected shot, though he managed to retrieve the ball. Three days later, at Portsmouth, I saw him make his 536th record Premiership appearance for the home team, latest of his many clubs, against Manchester City. Fittingly on this occasion, he made a fine save five minutes from time.

But one remembers, with a shudder, his, abysmal displays for England in both Vienna and Copenhagen. If I might quote a line in French again, it recalls what the famous novelist, Andre Gide replied when asked who was the greatest French poet: “Victor Hugo, helas (alas).”

So England have David James, alas. Though it was good at least to see, the Sunday after James had played at Portsmouth, Ben Foster getting a rare game at Derby (where he excelled last year on his one and only appearance all season) and confirming his prowess. Much good however does that do him at Old Trafford where he has two other ’keepers in his way, notably the evergreen Dutch veteran, Edwin van der Sar. Foster, who had a long struggle with injury, did win a cap while on loan to Watford. I only wish he could go out on loan again.

David Beckham, you will have noted, duly won his 108th cap which put him equal numerically at least with those more properly won by Bobby Moore. But Bobby as we all know won those caps fair and square, playing the full 90 or even 120 minutes, while Beckham, ludicrously indulged by Fabio Capello, has been picking up caps for pathetically brief, late appearances, as a substitute.

To give him his due he did play the whole of the second-half in Seville, and he did give two splendid passes, one of which so nearly brought a goal for the debutant and substitute, Carlton Cole, whose shot was kicked off the line. But using Beckham meant no space for the two far faster, much younger Aston Villa pair, Ashley Young and James Milner.

The winger who really shone, however, on the right flank in the first-half, on the left in the second, was Shaun Wright-Phillips, transformed since he moved back from Chelsea where he regressed, to Manchester City where he is transformed. Not only, with his speed and control, did he trouble the Spanish defence but he generously and frequently dropped back to help his own harassed defence.

Harassed by a Spanish attack which splendidly reminded us that technique, intelligence and precision can still flourish in the modern game, their forwards and midfield men cool and confident in possession, shrewd in movement, exact and incisive in their passing. Up front they had the formidable pair of tall blond Fernando Torres and quicksilver Villa. As what one might call, however anachronistically, their inside-forwards, were Xavi, Alonso and Iniesta. England just don’t seem to produce them any more. Paul Gazza was arguably the last of the Mohicans.

The day before the England game, I was at Arsenal’s huge stadium (a 60,000 crowd) to watch Brazil brush Italy aside 2-0, with glorious first-half goals engineered by the Manchester City pair, Robinho (his own goal a masterpiece of elusive footwork) and Elano.

Yet afterwards, it was so odd to hear the Italy manager Marcello Lippi say his players were intimidated by the Brazilians.

What & when his team included half a dozen 2006 World Cup winners! Against a Brazilian team which, however well it played at Highbury, had struggled for many months, even held to a humiliating goalless draw at home by Bolivia, famed for functioning well only on the dizzying heights of La Paz. And Brazil, in London were without Kaka!

So Lippi, of all people, seems to have waved the white flag. And his Brazilian equivalent, Dunga, under withering fire in Brazil for so long, for his deeply negative tactics, is seen as the coach of an adventurous, illuminated team.

Mind you, three days later, at Portsmouth, both Elano and Robinho were a disaster in a well-beaten Manchester City team. Coach Mark Hughes said there was all the difference between an international friendly and a premiership game. Really?