Quite how much tawdrier the plotting and deal-making for the 2018 football World Cup could become it is hard to imagine, and how appropriate that not just Sepp Blatter but officials at England’s campaign are so keen to denounce the devastating Sunday Times investigation into Fifa corruption.
Quite how much tawdrier the plotting and deal-making for the 2018 football World Cup could become it is hard to imagine, and how appropriate that not just Sepp Blatter but officials at England’s campaign are so keen to denounce the devastating Sunday Times investigation into Fifa corruption. No, the only World Cup that matters for England is the 15-man game due to kick off in ten months in Auckland. And eight years after Sydney, English hearts should be pumping that bit harder. Maybe, just maybe, England not only could but should take the Webb Ellis next year.
Health warning first. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a hymn of praise to the new lovable Chelsea and their engaging manager, Carlo Ancelotti. Moments later, to Ancelotti’s apparent dismay, they fired Ray Wilkins, most loyal of the loyal and best distributor of the horizontal pass in history, and since then the team have played woefully. So sorry about that: Chelsea are still as frightful and loathsome as ever, and this observer knows nothing.
But onward and upward, and let’s look ahead to New Zealand. What seems clear is that the gap between northern and southern hemisphere sides is closing. Look at some of the results: in the Tri-Nations, South Africa nearly beat the Kiwis in Soweto; the Scots had a great victory against the Springboks, the world champions, at the weekend; the All Blacks hammered the Scots, but lost to Australia in Hong Kong before coming here for the autumn series. England had an outstanding match against the Kiwis, might have won, and took the Aussies to the cleaners. I can’t remember a more open build-up to a World Cup.
It is the manner of England’s play now that’s so exciting. Martin Johnson appears to have built a team that plays southern-hemisphere running rugby with northern power in the scrum and at the breakdown, with athletes who can operate all over the park. Chris Ashton’s breathtaking try against the Aussies was made by a pass from second-row Courtney Lawes of such skill that had something similar been done by a Brazilian footballer or an Indian spinner we would have purred with pleasure. The game was so fast and open that the dump-truck, Andrew Sheridan, complained he hadn’t enough to do. The next game, though, he was magnificent against the warriors of Samoa. (How shameful that international rugby’s governing bodies treat the Pacific Island teams with contempt, and how bravely the island players keep battering at the door.)
There are great reserves of talent, too: Danny Care for the brilliant Ben Youngs; the massive trio of Tindall, Hape and the awesome Banahan sit in the centre and cut out the sun; and there’s still Riki Flutey to come. Johnson has come in for a fair share of flak before this season, and took it all gamely. He just got on with the job — and how.
And what a dismal contrast, after English football’s wretched showing against Laurent Blanc’s magically rejuvenated France, to hear Fabio Capello talking at Wembley. Speaking in English that gets more broken by the month, he seemed to be saying, ‘First you want me to pick young players, so I pick young players; now you want me to pick experienced players…’ And he tailed off. It occurred to me that like many English coaches he is being paid to channel media expectations and the banshees of Radio 5 Live, rather than pick a ruddy team. Sad if such an apparently proud man has been broken like that. You saw the same at the end of Duncan Fletcher’s time in charge of the England cricket team, when at the media’s orders he chose Andrew Flintoff to stand in for Michael Vaughan rather than the blindingly obvious Andrew Strauss. Maybe for the best, though, as we will win the Ashes. Try it in a double with the rugby World Cup. And don’t put your winnings in the Bank of Ireland.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.