RIO DE JANEIRO — Above the England training headquarters at the military base of Urca, across a boat-flecked bay from the hazy outline of downtown Rio de Janeiro, towers the great rock known as the Pao de Acucar, or Sugar Loaf.
It’s the most spectacular of workplaces for Roy Hodgson and his players and right now it seems to say: ‘’You’ve given yourself quite a mountain to climb, guys, if we’re going to stay in this World Cup.’’
But isn’t that what mountains are for? And didn’t coach Hodgson’s men perform well enough in that superb game with Italy in Manaus, even though they lost 2-1, to suggest that enough points can be wrested from Uruguay and Costa Rica to see England through to the second round?
I certainly think so. Not least because I trust Hodgson and, more important, sense that the players, too, buy into the methods he’s been drilling into them almost since the end of the Premier League season in mid-May.
Even the veterans of the notorious England press pack have been swayed by Hodgson’s approach to the job and general workmanlike demeanour. One took time out from watching the squad train at Urca to tell me: ‘’You see Roy out there in his tracksuit, hitting balls for the boys to chase, gesticulating what he wants them to do.
‘’He seems to kick every ball they do, make every run with them, and to see such enthusiasm at his age [Hodgson will be 67 in a few weeks] has to be inspiring, especially as the game the boys are delivering on the field seems suddenly to be getting close to what the nation has always wanted.’’
That’s an attacking game, of course, but what I like as well – and, as an advocate of Hodgson as England coach for longer that some of the younger converts have had laptops, always believed he could provide – is the team ethic evident against the equally integrated Italians last weekend.
It could have been a club side out there in the Arena Amazonia. There were flaws, to be sure, and without them the majestic Andrea Pirlo wouldn’t have been able to engineer a position from which Italy can be seen as clear favorite to top the group. Hodgson’s defensive structure remains a work in progress.
But the basis of advancement is there and Roberto Martinez, the highly respected Everton coach, was not alone in praising England’s absorption of the good habits of modern soccer, including care in possession, at which the nation has been perennially bad.
In individual terms the main worry, if you can call it that, is Wayne Rooney. Ever since he burst on the international scene as a teenager in the 2004 European Championship, Rooney has been seen as potential saviour of the last great under-achieving soccer nation (since Spain became a serial winner).
I’ve joined in the excitement myself; I can even dimly remember speculating that he might develop into England’s Diego Maradona, leading the nation to success much as the great Argentine did for his country in the 1986 World Cup.
It hasn’t happened. The pattern has tended to be that, with his goals and all-round leadership in qualifying, the Manchester United striker-cum-creator gets England to tournaments, only to let it down with mundane performances when the going gets tougher.
There’s a difference this time. England want to get the best out of Rooney – but they don’t need it. The talk of him being dropped – a pre-tournament space-filler for the media – has at last subsided as it’s become known that he will start once more against the Uruguayans, but at least it indicated the Hodgson has options in the creative attacking roles.
One of them is Southampton’s technically gifted Adam Lallana. Another, now he’s nearing full fitness after a knee problem encountered in the pre-tournament friendlies, is Arsenal’s young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Hodgson believes both will have a part to play if, as England rightly expect, they keep their hopes alive in Sao Paulo, ready for the final group game against Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte.
Right from the start of the campaign, however, his strategy has been to establish a relationship of trust with key men such as Rooney and captain Steven Gerrard and it’s not going to be broken lightly.
According to Gerrard’s fellow veteran Frank Lampard, clearly an important member of the squad still despite the unlikelihood he will start a game unless there are injuries, the players all find it ‘’frustrating’’ to read constantly that Rooney’s place is in danger.
He told the media they were ‘’over-fixating’’ on England’s best player, one who would eventually break the national scoring record, adding: ‘’You are making something so huge…and it doesn’t help.’’ It would keep going, Lampard reckoned, until Rooney got a goal. He contributed an assist against Chile, so stand by.