It’s the penalties, stupid

ENGLAND, I am now ready to predict, will qualify for the 2010 World Cup. When they get there, let’s hope they don’t make the mistakes of 2006. And I’m not referring to the WAGs.

Rio Ferdinand’s comments ahead of tonight’s 3-1 victory over Belarus in Minsk were, at most, a fascinating insight into the different methods of management applied by Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello. Nothing more.

“If I’m honest, we became a bit of a circus in terms of the whole WAG situation,” said Ferdinand, suggesting that England’s players are much happier with the way things are run now.

Eriksson preferred light-touch regulation, Capello uses a firmer hand. Just like Britain’s banks, England’s footballers needed a bit of discipline imposed from above. England’s fortunes, though, have improved a little quicker than those of the Bank of England.

But to blame England’s World Cup quarter-final exit four years ago on the WAGs is wrong. England didn’t lose to Portugal because of Victoria Beckham and Cheryl Cole/Tweedy. England lost to Portugal because they weren’t very good at taking penalties.

It’s as simple as that.

Italy won the last World Cup by beating France on penalties. France themselves reached the final with a 1-0 victory over Portugal, thanks to a Zinedine Zidane penalty. Zidane scored another penalty in the final, before he was sent off. Italy’s semi-final win came over a Germany side who had reached the last four by beating Argentina on penalties.

Do I need to go on?

OK, I will.

Spain were, by common consent, deserved winners of Euro 2008. But to get to the trophy, they needed a penalty shoot-out win over Italy – the world champions – in the quarter-finals.

The margin for error in major football tournaments is small. The winner of every major European Championship or World Cup in my living memory has come through a moment when they could have gone out. Very often, that moment is a penalty shoot-out.

And this is where England have, with one exception, always come up short.

England beat Spain in a shoot-out in the quarter-finals at Euro 96. Five other shoot-outs have been lost: against West Germany at Italia 90, against Germany at Euro 96, against Argentina at France 98, against Portugal at Euro 2004 and against Portugal again at the last World Cup.

When various England players and managers – and assorted experts – state that it is pointless practising penalties because it is impossible to recreate the pressure of a shoot-out in training, I understand what they are saying, but still want to scream.

This is because I know that England will face another penalty shoot-out soon and, most likely as not, will fall short. We will be confronted by teary, blubbing footballers consoling each other in their defeat. And we will understand their tears, because it must be horrible to be the one who misses the vital penalty, and it’s a team game, and we mustn’t single out individuals.

And when this happens, probably at the next World Cup, probably in the quarter-finals, probably after an heroic performance against a side of a similar standard to England, I will say this:

“Goalkeepers are routinely singled out for criticism and ridicule in the Premier League. So too are referees. This is because, in both cases, their mistakes generally affect the outcome of a game. Penalty shoot-outs are the only time an outfield player ever faces up to that kind of pressure.

“It’s horrible. It’s difficult. I couldn’t do it. But the whole reason those players are representing England is because they are brilliant footballers. So they should be able to take penalties.

“And if they ever want to win anything, they will have to get used to coming out on top in penalty shoot-outs.”

Once I have said this, I will sit in a corner and deflate slowly, while some numpty tries to blame our latest penalty shoot-out defeat on Ashley Cole’s wife, or Peter Crouch’s robot dance, or something equally irrelevant.

You can blame Cheryl Cole for whichever toothsome Jimmy Osmond-a-like gobbles up the Christmas No 1 by winning this year’s X-Factor. You can’t, though, blame her for anything that happens to the England football team.

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