Why Capello may have taken the wrong risk in axing Arsenal's Walcott

First Harry Potter, now the World Cup. Arsenal forward Theo Walcott’s England Under-21 commitments meant he missed out on a cameo role in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix in the summer of 2006. A shock inclusion for England in 2006, a shock omission in 2010, young Gunners starlet Walcott still has time to make like a phoenix and resurrect his career.

The cynical view – that Arsene Wenger's star pupil has been living off that hat-trick against Croatia for nearly two years now – has some merit but in 2009/10, even hampered by injuries, he still produced the goods against the best team in the world, Barcelona, at the Emirates Stadium and is in better form than the man who took his place, Shaun Wright-Phillips of Manchester City.

Pundits like Chris Waddle have pointed to the 21-year-old’s poor decision-making but The Times headline “Wright-Phillips benefits as Capello discards unfulfilled potential” alludes to the central puzzle. If Walcott is to be discarded because of his decision-making and unfulfilled potential, what, then, are the grounds for selecting Wright-Phillips who, despite increasingly rare flashes of brilliance, now plays with the desperate, unconvincing air of a one-trick pony who has forgotten what his trick is?

If Walcott had been chosen over Wright-Phillips, The Times could easily have run the headline “Walcott benefits as Capello discards unfulfilled potential…”

Every squad selection is a risk but has Capello taken the wrong risk? If he was going to discard experience and gamble on promise, the most mesmerising prospect on the wing must be Adam Johnson who, aside from his raw talent and brilliant form, has already shown a richer understanding of the game than Walcott or Wright-Phillips.

"Balls - I've already cancelled the newspapers and milk for June!"

Gazza agonistes

Walcott’s omission was at least handled with dignity. No tell-all stories, no reports of the Arsenal star threatening Don Fabio with a golf club. But then Capello probably didn’t have a little lite saxophone music by Kenny G playing in the background to ease the tension, as Glenn Hoddle did when he broke the bad news to Gazza in 1998.

Gazza’s exclusion was car crash TV before the term was even invented. Throughout the weekend in La Manga before the final 22 was announced, the star’s tomfoolery, drinking and karaoke singing (Elvis’s Wooden Heart was a particular favourite) failed to dispel his nagging conviction that Hoddle was going to drop him.

After a round of golf on the Sunday, Gazza was, depending on which account you believe, drunk or distraught or both. He told teammates: “This is sh*t, I’m gone. I can’t do it any more”. In a desperate bid to sort him out, the squad’s recovering alcoholics Tony Adams and Paul Merson took him down to the swimming pool, stripped him and threw him in.

Gazza was due to see Hoddle at 5.15pm but even before he entered the room, he could read the bad news in the anguished, evasive behaviour of Glenn Roeder, the member of the England coaching staff who knew him best.

As soon as Hoddle said, “I’m sorry Paul, you’re not coming to France, you’re not fit enough”, Gazza started weeping. (Bizarrely, Hoddle had dreamt of Gazza crying over a table in front of him only a few nights before.) Just as the player turned to go, he went berserk, his rage spilling out in a torrent of abuse and a swift kick at a chair. Like a man possessed, Gazza turned and, just as Hoddle thought he was about to be punched, smashed a lamp over the floor. The noise of the shattering glass prompted one of Hoddle’s assistants (not, as Gazza says in his memoirs, his teammates) to rush in and help the player to his room.

The word soon spread and David Seaman ran to Gazza’s hotel room to find his teammate weeping uncontrollably and looking, in the keeper’s words, “like a man totally destroyed”. In a weekend in which the greatest England midfielder of his generation committed professional suicide, the coup de grace was his decision to sell his side of the story to the Sun.

The omission made professional sense. Gazza’s antics, which had once rallied the squad, had begun to divide it. Reading the accounts by the principal players, you sense there was something deeper. A cavalier as a player, Hoddle had become a roundhead as a coach and was disgusted by what he saw as Gascoigne’s sheer lack of professionalism.

 Gazza returns to England after his fracas with a Spanish lamp

Ian Hamilton even suggested that Hoddle did not want a rival ‘soccer god’ in the squad especially one who was an icon to younger players who couldn’t remember Hoddle in his heyday but had vivid memories of Italia 90.

In truth, as we have seen countless times since – Romario in 2006, Ronaldinho in 2010 – almost every coach would have made the same decision as Hoddle.

But Sunday 31 May 1998 was the day Gazza’s world fell apart. And he’s not managed to put it back together ever since.

Great World Cup clowns

In tribute to Gazza’s clowning (this is after all the man who once said “I’ve made more money from tears than Ken Dodd”) – and as part of an intermittent, feeble campaign to challenge the stereotype of German footballers as paragons of dour Teutonic efficiency – I have been trying to compile a list of great World Cup clowns.

Top of the list has to be striker Gert Dorfel who missed the cut for West Germany’s 1962 squad after impressing in the qualifiers and consoled himself by amassing one of the world’s greatest collections of popular music. He sometimes handed out candy to children during games and earned a living as a clown after he hung up his boots.

Ulrich Hesse kindly sent me this clip of Philip Lahm helping a cooler, German kind of Paul Daniels, make magic on a German TV show called Stars In The Circus Ring. I could watch nonsense like this all day. Lucky I have a day job. But if you think of any great World Cup clowns or circus acts, get in touch.

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