When the Football Association appointed Eriksson it was made clear that the present tournament would merely be a prelude to what England hope to achieve in Germany in 2006. The long-term ambition was to build a side capable of winning the World Cup not now but four years hence.
Presumably this is still the aim. But the likelihood of an England side again finding itself so close to the final with the likes of Argentina, France and Italy already eliminated would appear to be slim. The prize was there for England to grasp this time but for a variety of reasons they could not get a grip on it. After promising to stride to the last four in seven-league boots they crept out of the World Cup in Hush Puppies.
Maybe Eriksson’s side had overreached itself. Even if Steven Gerrard and Gary Neville had not been injured and David Beckham had been fully match fit the team would still be short on World Cup experience and stronger on industry than inventiveness.
Yesterday’s frustration came from the knowledge that, with so many fancied teams already out and nothing exceptional among the survivors, England had probably passed up their best chance to win the World Cup since 1966. Even when Bobby Robson’s side reached the semi-finals in 1990 it was always going to be touch and go against West Germany.
When the draw was made England’s supporters might have settled for beating Argentina in the first round before going out to Brazil in the quarter-finals; there is no dishonour there, surely. This Brazilian team, however, has about as much relevance to the samba as a clog dance.
They could have gone out to Belgium in the second round and looked equally beatable here yesterday for half the match. Eriksson’s game plan of carefully rationed attacks from a solid defensive position looked as if it was going to work again when Michael Owen put England ahead in the 23rd minute, and even when Rivaldo brought the scores level in first-half stoppage time there appeared to be no immediate crisis.
Five minutes into the second half, however, a blunder by David Seaman gave Ronaldinho a freak goal from a free-kick and, although the scorer was sent off six minutes later for going over the top on Danny Mills, England could not find the wit, imagination or accuracy to exploit the advantage of an extra man.
And that was what disappointed Eriksson the most. As the coach said, once Brazil went down to 10 men the team lost its shape, its purpose and was reduced to hitting high balls into the midst of Brazil’s defence. Between Ronaldinho’s dismissal in the 56th minute and the final whistle England did not achieve another shot on goal.
It did not help that they had to spend so much time trying to get the ball off the world’s most gifted exponents of possession play. Rivaldo, with his face-clutching collapses, might have been time-wasting but Brazil can make a fine art of quite legal time consumption.
This was when England needed Beckham to take hold of their game as he had done so memorably in the decisive qualifier against Greece at Old Trafford. Yet Beckham, though his contribution in this tournament has hardly been meagre, has never looked sufficiently match fit to assume that amount of responsibility.
Not that it looked as if England would fall behind once they had taken the lead, when Lucio allowed a ball from Emile Heskey to reach Owen, who nipped through to beat Marcos. Indeed, it seemed more likely that England would score again.
Wisely, perhaps, they did not risk getting overstretched in order to increase their lead. Maybe they wanted to save their stamina on a hot afternoon, get to half-time without mishap and then go for a second goal. If so, they were a minute away from the initial objective when Brazil drew level with a goal which was beautifully conceived and executed but inaugurated by Beckham’s continued mistrust of his recently mended foot.
His avoidance of a tackle and Paul Scholes’ failure to get possession allowed Ronaldinho to run at Ashley Cole and deceive the defender with a neat change of feet before laying the ball off to Rivaldo, whose low shot found the far left-hand corner of the net.
Worse was to follow. Seaman had begun the present World Cup with the blunder at Wembley which allowed Dietmar Hamann to win a qualifier for Germany. Now he ended it by wandering just far enough off his goal-line to leave himself stranded by the 30-yard free-kick that Ronaldinho floated in under the bar. The Brazilian seemed to be looking beyond the defensive wall when he took the kick, so maybe he meant to score but, fluke or otherwise, Seaman should not have let it happen.
Ronaldinho’s spiteful lunge at Mills might have cost Brazil the game but instead more or less guaranteed England would lose it the way they did. The English supporters cheered their team to the echo but Seaman’s tears told a truer story.
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