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A Dichotomy of Nations
Two teams. Similar standings in the group stages but two diametrically opposed views on their places in the standings. On one hand you have the United States quite happy with the fact that their destiny is in their own hands. And on the other you have England. England, the mother-land of football who have one World Cup title to their cabinet. England who are currently struggling to articulate why they are in the predicament they are in. Based on mind-set alone,it is England’s Yankee cousins who seem the more likely to progress out of the group stages.
So what is it? Why are there two teams who have essentially seem to be going in polar opposite directions even though they are in exactly identical situations.
Heart and Grit:
A lot has been said about the skill level of the English. These are tough players. They play in the hardest league in the world. But right now there looks to be no heart in their play. Whether it’s due to the weight of expectations or just not able to live up to the calling of such a great stage, England looked progressively worse in their first two matches. It is evident that they do not have the hear to overcome adversity. It is as if they believe the hype of the press and feel they only have to show up in order to be given a win. The problem they face is that the opposition comes to play.
When scoring first against the US, you had to think they were going to do it. But they seemed to sit back on their 1 point lead thinking they were better than the US and could hold them off. Well, after a Robert Green flub the US were back in it and the English just didn’t seem ready for that eventuality. Then when playing Algeria the English just didn’t seem to have the will to try and over come a more determined opponent. Give Algeria credit they had a plan to frustrate England and England just didn’t have it in them to counter it.
On the other hand you have the United States. Two matches in and two dramatic draws. They were one bad call away from leading the group. While there is a frustration level at the way they are starting their matches – they are showing themselves to be a determined side. They are never out and even when it looks like they are they claw back to win.
Talent and Team:
It’s very hard to understand why a team as talented as England are doing so poorly. Or is it? Remember Capello spent some time trying to get international retirees to come out and play for the squad. It has been mentioned that Capello is less than thrilled with the overall talent level of the squad. He’s got very few world-class players. Maybe two or three. But overall this is a squad that while talented may not be up to the level of the calibre in international play.
Additionally, it’s hard to see that maybe lack of heart has something to do with playing for club rather than country. People have been scratching their heads as to why the likes of Rooney, Lampard, Gerard and others do seemingly well in the EPL but struggle in international play. One of the reasons I believe is lack of focus on the international team. Yes, they are all living together and training together for their longest period of time but they are not a cohesive unit. There is no “team” it is rather a group of talented individuals who take the pitch for the World Cup. Honestly what England need is a dose of Herb Brooks. For the unitiated Herb Brooks is the man who crafted the 1980 Miracle On Ice. By making himself public enemy number one and working the team to their bones, Herb strove to first break the group of very talented college kids of their individual mindsets and build a team. A team that went on the rink and believed it could win. And when the slipped they were shredded by arch enemy number one. But because of Herb’s work and the building of a team – they went on to glory.
The England team need to identify themselves as the England Team. They miss the likes of Beckham more than anyone – because if anyone bled the red and white of St. George – it was Becks. There is noone on the current England squad who have that – who can be that unifying factor. They may progress out of the group but its hard to belive that they will do anything beyond the semis – if they get that far.
There is plenty of talent on the US side as well but not at the level of the English side. The play of the US has been bolstered by many of it’s first teamers making squads in some of the best teams in Europe. But overall you would have to say they are still a work in progress in terms of realizing their full potential. But what this group lacks in terms of talent is its team spirit. It is heads and tails above the team concept in England. They understand what this trip means for them and for their sport.
Often looked at as the bastard children of professional sports, the US Men’s National Team understands that what they accomplish on the pitch together is going to broaden the appeal of their sport and make them the catalysts for that growth. They know that this can only be accomplished by working together and focusing on each match as it comes. They seem to enjoy the adversity they are going through and veracity at the team fights back makes you pull for them all the more.
Weight of Expectations:
In few countries is the weight of expectations for its national side greater than in England. As the founding nation of the sport to achieve anything less than a final’s appearance is disaster. However, it is not a reliastic notion. This England side and many of the England sides simply do not have the skills to compete with the Brazil, Spain and Germany’s of the tournaments. Noone looking at the tournament could really say that England have a full complement of players that can get them to glory without some major chips falling their way.
Throw in the the most abusive press on the globe who on one hand laud the conquering heros (before a match played) and with the other bring them down as pirrahs and you could not blame even the strongest player in the world from wilting under the pressure. Much is made of the skills required to play the game but very little is discussed about the mental side of the game. I think the mental side of the game is the hardest to overcome. If you have skills over time even if injured they will come back. However mentally individuals are their worst enemies. Rooney has to know the expectations that are placed on him as the primary scoring threat. He seems to handle it enough for Manchester United but the stakes are bigger in the WC. Now an entire nations is supporting him and expecting him to achive – with no goals so far it is clear that he is off his game and is not in the match. Much like the rest of his team. There seems to be no joy playing for England just the stress of not doing what is expected.
For the US the greatest expectations probably come from ESPN. They spen $400 million on the rights to broadcast the World Cup. Without the US in the round of 16 the general interest by the nation will diminish. The nation as a whole is behind their national team they just don’t expect the team to do much. Beyond the sweet 16 most US supporteres might be happy they got that far – given the results of the last few world cups.
Obviously the expectations of the players are greater than the national ones. But the team does play well and seems to enjoy playing together. How that all nets out remains to be seen.
Overall, I think both teams manage to get out the group. But I won’t be surprised if come Thursday we are hearing of a manager axed and a nation in mourning.