Should Capello smoke vulture brains?

Being England manager is a lot like having hiccups. Everybody is fervently convinced that their particular advice will cure your ills.

But Fabio Capello shouldn’t worry. The stats show that 58% of teams who draw their first group game make it to the last 16. And if a team is in the top 30 in the world when the tournament kicks off – as England were – that success rate soars to 69%.

If Capello feels in need of greater certainty South African gamblers would advise him to smoke a few vulture brains.

The host nation is home to nine species of vulture, seven of which are endangered, and Scientific American reports that local gamblers seeking a bit of extra luck will smoke a cigarette infused with dried, ground vulture brains which they believe will give them accurate visions of the future.

England should reach the last 16 - without having to harm any vultures. But that’s just the easy bit. What the nation really craves isn’t success but success with style, a performance that provokes the kind of plaudits that greeted Germany’s demolition of Australia.

When Podolski opened the scoring, my wife asked: “Why can’t England score goals like that?” I mumbled that we did sometimes, but was forced to hark back to Teddy Sheringham’s strike against the Dutch at Euro 96 as I strove to recall a goal – and a performance – of similar panache.

If England don’t win this tournament, the least supporters expect is for the team to play with a fluency and style that earns respect.

Following the World Cup on business in Toronto this week was an intriguing logistical challenge. The North American press have revelled in England’s discomfort, quoting Franz Beckenbauer’s withering analysis of the “kick and rush” football deployed against the USA, suggesting that Walter Jurman, the songwriter who famously wrote that all god’s children got rhythm might have changed his mind if he’d watched England’s opening performance, and even pointing out that English keepers, once the envy of the world, are prone to gaffes.

One paper even gloried in the day David Seaman, he of the “porn producer pony tail” failed to read Ronaldinho’s free-kick “even though the ball was in the air for longer than the average British Airways flight”.

Perhaps Rob Green’s slip was karmic payback for all the gags Jimmy Greaves and his ilk used to make about the quality of Scottish goalkeepers in the 1970s.

If I had to sum up the North American media’s response to the opening stages of this tournament in a word that word would be zzzzzzz. The main complaint is: where are the goals? The caption headlines on the evening sports reports in Toronto put it bluntly: “World Cup: goals disappearing”.

Jonathan Clegg, covering the finals for the Wall Street Journal, had an intriguing take on the goalscoring problem.

Fewer than half of the 32 finalists play with two upfront, the average goal per game has more than halved between 1954 and 2006 and since 1970 the average number of shots per game has slumped by 26%.

Clegg quotes Tony Cottee who says: “Managers are saying we don’t want goalscorers we want people to keep hold of the ball. They said to me when I was playing: ‘We don0’t just want you scoring goals’. But isn’t that the point of football?” That is certainly the North American view.

And the sponsors would probably agree. If the goals per game figure dips under 2.21, the nadir achieved at Italia 90, expect a flurry of suggestions about bigger goals and the like from FIFA.

In Europe, the view is rather different. As Alvaro Vargas Llosa, author of Lessons From The Poor, points out in a thoughtful feature, “In Europe, this World Cup brings a strange sense of comfort in these troubled days, allowing Europeans to maintain an illusion of superiority no longer sustained in other fields. At the World Cup, Europe often excels while China is entirely irrelevant.”

World leaders hoping that success on the pitch will improve their standing in the polls shouldn’t hold their breath. Although England’s abrupt, tragic exit in 1970 is blamed for losing Harold Wilson the general election, Llosa points out that Italian prime minister Giovanni Spadolini was booted out of office in December 1982, five months after the Azzurri won the World Cup.

Chile’s president Sebastian Pinera who has been setting some ambitious and very public targets for his team might want to take note. Chile’s years of hurt – before their 1-0 win over Honduras they hadn’t won a World Cup match in 48 years – are finally over.

They looked fluid and fluent against a useful Honduras. My only disappointment was that defender Arturo Vidal didn’t head home in the opening minute thereby rendering my carefully crafted headline “Vidal so soon” utterly redundant.

Llosa suggests the World Cup is an exercise in upward mobility. For me, it’s all about glass ceilings.

The last truly shock winner of the tournament was West Germany in 1954, when German football wasn’t even fully professional.

Only seven nations have won the competition. And the odds on Spain turning seven into eight have just lengthened a tad. No nation has ever won the World Cup after losing its first game. Still, that’s what history is there for, isn’t it? To be rewritten.

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