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England's not-so-easy World Cup task

Despite media predictions of quick advancement out of group play, Alexi Lalas notes that 'we can play off the fact that England always thinks they are better than they are.'

December 06, 2009|By Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer

England's tabloid newspapers hit the streets with a predictable damp thud on Saturday morning, each one striving to out-cliche and out-pun the rest.

The main topic, not surprisingly, was the 2010 World Cup draw held in Cape Town on Friday night. The most scurrilous of the tabloids, the Sun, had the most eye-catching front page.

No, sad to say, it wasn't the usual near-naked model (she's inside). This time, it was four capitalized words, printed just like this:





For the less perceptive, the first letter of each word was printed in red ink, as follows: E-A-S-Y.

Easy. That's what the English hacks think of the group. They see virtually no chance of an upset, no chance for the Algerians, the Slovenians or the Americans finishing atop the table.

Alexi Lalas, who played for the U.S. when it defeated England in a friendly in 1993, is unimpressed by it all, at least according to the Sun.

"We can play off the fact that England always thinks they are better than they are," Lalas said.

England's other two opponents, Algeria and Slovenia, have similarly poured scorn on English visions of superiority before a ball has even been kicked in anger.

"We are not going to go out to the World Cup asking the English players for autographs," snapped Algerian forward Rafik Saifi.

Former Slovenian star Zlatko Zahovic was even more scathing.

"For me, England is not one of the favorites," he said.

"They are a team full of stars and egos. They cannot possibly spend a month and a half together without friction."

Time for the U.S. to start trash-talking, or would that just invite an even bigger mauling for Landon Donovan and company come June 12?

Jump start

Most of the post-draw comments were the usual bland nonsense, with coaches and players invariably predicting success.

There were a few notable exceptions, however.

After Japan Coach Takeshi Okada said he was aiming for a top-four finish, Japan's former coach, Ivica Osim, said reaching the semifinals was a pipe dream.

"The bigger the expectations, the bigger the disappointment," Osim said.

"Japan is capable of pulling off a surprise, but to get where Japan is trying to go they will need a trampoline."

Hookahs and such

A scandal of delicious proportions has erupted in Russia, where the state-run First Channel has televised an expose alleging that key Russian players stayed up until 4 a.m. on the night before their home playoff game with Slovenia, drinking beer, smoking hookah pipes and cavorting with, shall we say, women of E-A-S-Y virtue (Thank you, Sun).

Russia defeated Slovenia, 2-1, in Moscow, but was beaten, 1-0, in the return match in Slovenia and thus failed to qualify for the World Cup, Slovenia advancing on the away-goals rule.

First Channel quoted a waiter at a cafe on Moscow's Tverskaya Street who said he had seen it all.

"They had so many pipes I got fed up and told them I wouldn't give them any more," the waiter said.

"You have to be crazy to smoke hookahs before a match.

"They played cards, puffed pipes and several of them had a drink. They simply took it easy."

Since First Channel is owned by the Kremlin, which is furious at Russia's failure to qualify for South Africa, there is some doubt about the report's veracity.

Russia's biggest star, Arsenal playmaker Andrei Arshavin, dismissed the story with a believable sounding comment.

"One can't treat such rumors seriously," he told Russia's Sport Express newspaper. "Are we so mad to kill our own dream?"

Also casting doubt on the Kremlin channel's story is the fact that Russia is coached by one of the sport's great disciplinarians, Guus Hiddink, who is unlikely to have allowed his reputation to be sullied by misbehaving players.

Beckham factor

To judge by popular opinion in England, David Beckham and his ridiculous hairdo will definitely be on the plane when England Coach Fabio Capello takes his traveling sideshow to South Africa in June.

Surprisingly, the arguments for Beckham's inclusion to the squad go beyond the Galaxy and AC Milan midfielder's value as high-profile cheerleader for England's 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids.

"His experience could be a vital factor," said former Newcastle United and England striker Alan Shearer on BBC2. "I don't think he'll start in the competition.

"I think he'll start on the bench, and then of course a lot will depend on injuries and form.

"There are going to be times, I'm sure, in games where he might need to come on and just try to protect something with his experience."

"He gives you something else," said former Liverpool and Ireland defender Mark Lawrenson.

"He gives you that passing ability for the last 15 or 20 minutes."

Added Shearer: "No one pushing [to go in Beckham's place] can cross a ball better than he can. He is without a doubt, in dead-ball situations, the best at that."

If Beckham goes to South Africa and plays, he would become only the 17th player in history to appear in four World Cups.

But his hair is still ridiculous.

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