Welcome with as much anticipation and excitement as a fat rain cloud in a spotless sky, the English football team touched down at Heathrow yesterday morning. The boys were back, but they didn't come as heroes. Heads bent and shoulders slumping, they made a show of trying to come unseen and unnoticed.
Having stumbled off, after a dismal performance that looked as if half the players were on strike, the hostile environment of the Free Stadium in Bloemfontein, they couldn't avoid stepping into the hostile environment of public attention for long.
During the game already, the BBC couldn't stop castigating the team that never played like one. They showed Germany's first goal a good fifteen times, from all angles and in increasing slow motion and invariably accompanied by an exasperated cry for deliverance from the disaster that was the English defense. During halftime of the Argentina-Mexico game, talk still swirled exclusively around the earlier game, as if the half that had just ended had never happened.
A panel of football experts debated reasons for the inexplicable melting away of English ability and resolve. There was no will, no desire, no passion. So what if a goal had been disallowed? After such a pathetic performance, Team England didn't deserve better than be thrashed said the BBC, and the rest of the media agreed. The question of why came up quickly. How does a team full of football superstars that aced the qualification fall into pieces almost overnight?
The question was posed to Fabio Capello, the stern Italian coach of the team. He mentioned tiredness as if it would explain everything but didn't elaborate. Hasn't every player in the World Cup played a long season? If anything, after flopping out of the Champion's League early in April, the English players had all the time in the world to recover the bodies and focus their minds.
It's more likely that the alleged tiredness betrays a deeper malaise in international football that's particular noticeable in England. The Premier League is one of the richest in the world. Russian oligarchs, sheikhs from the Gulf and assorted billionaires own most of the teams and run them like an expensive hobby, with blithe disregard of economic considerations. Salaries go through the roof because no one checks the accounts.
Top players earn upwards of 10,000 pounds a day. With money like that, it's clear that they're none to eager to run their hearts out in the cold South African winter. Habitually pampered and overindulged by an awestruck media, and with more money than brains no matter how good their brains, they're more likely to drive the recently bought Ferrari around the ring road or jet to the Seychelles for an afternoon by the beach.
I'm not saying that money corrupts or fries your brain, or that you become a worse footballer if you're generously remunerated for you efforts. But I've seen it again and again that it's teams that win tournaments, not outstanding individual players. An assembly of arrogant, overpaid sportsmen who are living the life of a retiree at 30 might make for good marketing opportunities, especially if the guys stay present in the gossip columns with speed limit infractions, marital betrayal and drinks spilled on strangers, but it won't win the World Cup.
It's for these reasons I'm excited about the German team. The spirits stayed high for a good four years; even the lyrics of the unofficial song were changed to reflect new realities after 2006 didn't work out as anticipated. No prima donna or instant millionaire poisons the collaborative atmosphere. Now the entire country awaits the game against Argentina on Saturday, with respect for the opponent but also with excitement and much anticipation. Go Germany!