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Saturday, Nov. 22, 2008

PREMIER REPORT

Even with best players out, Capello's England continues to impress


LONDON — The theory that international friendlies are a waste of time was blown out of the water by the score line from Berlin: Germany 1, England 2.

Christopher Davies

Club managers would have these "meaningless" games banned with Arsenal's Arsene Wenger leading the protests after Theo Walcott dislocated a shoulder in training the day before the game in the German capital.

Because of England, Arsenal will be without the best young player in the Premier League and understanding about a friendly in Germany is in short supply from the French manager.

There have been too many false dawns for England to start believing they can win a second World Cup 44 years after their first, but when you win 4-1 in Croatia and two months later come away from Berlin with a 2-1 victory, Planet Football sits up and takes notice.

Fabio Capello may be a difficult guy to like or get to know — that is a compliment by the way — but the way he is transforming England ensures that he is respected and admired.

From no hopers to a team full of genuine hope; from under achievers to a side that can beat Germany with only three of the accepted first team — David James, John Terry and Gareth Barry.

It will be interesting to see if the eight drop-out players who were not fit enough to play for Eng land, including Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney — play for their clubs this weekend.

In their absence the understudies would have given Capello food for thought.

Aston Villa forward Gabriel Agbonlahor, midfielder Michael Carrick of Manchester United and Portsmouth right-back Glen Johnson were the pick of those who answered their country's call.

West Ham defender Matthew Upson, who scored the opening goal, can also be proud of his night's work.

Captain John Terry led by example. He took the blame for Germany's goal when he and goalkeeper Scott Carson hesitated, allowing Patrick Helmes to score. Carson should probably have taken charge of the situation, but Terry magnanimously protected the goalkeeper and said the goal was his fault.

To make up for this Captain Courageous headed in the winner to make it five wins in succession for Capello's England.

There are other reasons to be cheerful and, apart from the scoreline, the most impressive statistic was that 7,500 England fans traveled to Berlin. Forget the credit crunch, no matter that Christmas is five weeks away, so what if it's a friendly and the weather is lousy?

A year ago England would have struggled to find 700 supporters to travel anywhere, but Team Capello has restored the country's faith and pride in the national team.

If England had become a comfy club, Capello has ensured that no one can be confident they will play in the next game. It is not so much a fear factor as a motivational technique.

No one, not even the players, will get to know the Italian that well. He needs the distance to manage in the way he does and while England is winning he can do exactly what he wants.

* * * * *

IT WAS the logic of someone who has no defense.

When Argentina head coach Diego Maradona was asked about his Hand of God goal against England at Mexico '86 before the friendly against Scotland on Wednesday his response was to go on the attack.

"I don't think it's fair for anyone to judge me when England scored a goal in the 1966 World Cup final that wasn't over the line," said Maradona. "They just didn't have action replays in those days."

The difference is that Geoff Hurst did not cheat the Germans. His shot struck the crossbar and, in the opinion of the Azerbaijani linesman, Leonid Trakhtenberg, rebounded over the line.

Goal.

Maradona, of course, stuck up an arm and fisted the ball into the England net to open the scoring for Argentina against England.

Goal — but one that should have been struck off.

The Scots, with their traditional dislike (and worse occasionally) of the English, gave Maradona a big hand as he made his debut as Argentina coach with a 1-0 win.

Even Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, signed a card presented to Maradona.

Terry Butcher, part of England's defense that afternoon in 1986, and now assistant manager of Scotland, refused to shake the hand that cheated his team.

If that is understandable, it is also a tradition to sweep your own moments of cheating under the carpet.

England did not cheat in 1966, but when Michael Owen hit the deck to earn a penalty against Argentina at France '98, the England striker dotted the i's and crossed the t's as he fell down.

Steven Gerrard has also been known to do all he can to ensure the referee awards a penalty.

In Germany, two years ago, Peter Crouch tugged the hair of a Trinidad and Tobago defender as England finally broke the dreadlock, sorry deadlock, against the minnows from the Caribbean.

Players cheat all the time. They claim corners they know are goal-kicks, throw-ins that are obviously for the opposition and feign injury to get an opponent cautioned or sent off.

What Maradona did against England was not unique. It just happened to be what most outside of Argentina and Scotland consider the most high-profile example of cheating in the history of world football.

Plus, of course, at USA '94 Maradona was banned by FIFA for playing with more illegal drugs than the local pharmacy — the ultimate cheating as it is premeditated, maybe it should be pre-medicated.

Incidentally, the famous picture of Maradona fisting the ball in the England net with his left hand before goalkeeper Peter Shilton could punch it clear was taken by a Mexican photographer.

With the English photographers behind Argentina's net to hopefully capture an England goal or two, there were few British's "snappers" at the other end.

The Mexican who captured the moment so vividly sold the copyright to a British agency, handing the rights over for, I was told, $1,000.

It went on to become probably the most lucrative sporting photograph ever, yet rather than going to bed each night crying over the loss of hundreds of thousands of bucks in potential earnings — the ultimate fistful of dollars — the Mexican is, apparently, simply proud his photo is printed around the world so often.

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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