Green error clouds a brighter future
As time ticked by on another underwhelming opening performance, a section of England fans heartily sang their national anthem in an attempt to soothe jangling synapses. Perhaps "God Save Rob Green" would have been more appropriate.
England's goalkeeper will be an undoubted target for much ridicule but it is to be hoped that his error, grave as it was, will fade in the memory as his team's World Cup campaign rolls on. Green, as his coach suggested afterwards, had later kept his team level by making a "good save" to deny Jozy Altidore. Unfortunately, lamented Fabio Capello, Green had befallen the "problem of the goalkeeper" where any error almost certainly results in an opposition goal.
Capello may have stated that his team "played a good match" and even played "better than the USA" but that will not shield them from a nationwide collective shrug of creeping deja vu. A promising start had been wiped away by farce: such things are almost to be expected.
Rural Rustenberg had provided a reminder of the global nature of the idea of a World Cup. A lush, green valley - this is winter - provided a bucolic setting for a match between two of the best supported teams in the tournament. Just across from the Royal Bafokeng Stadium's main entrance lay the type of shebeens - drinking houses - enjoyed by the locals and, give or take a few replica shirts, they proved that cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town cannot tell the whole story of South Africa.
Would official reports stating that USA fans would outnumber their English counterparts in the stadium serve as a possible pointer to a new world order of 'soccer'? There was a palpable sense of defiance among the English ranks. They can have our shopping centres, our Saturday morning TV and our historic confectionary companies but surely they could not beat us at our own game? The task of preventing such an outcome lay with an Italian and a patched-up group of players bearing a marked resemblance to the same group that let down a nation four years ago. This time, humiliation was reserved for only one of their number.
Off the field, the flag of St George had dominated the Stars and Stripes, with familiar names from smalltown England adorning the red and white flags. Scunthorpe, Cannock and Caistor easily saw off Anchorage, West Hartford and Gary, Indiana in those stakes.
After the faltering first steps of both France and Argentina, England fans had looked for their team to provide the first show of the fancied. A slow start and a quarter-final departure is the most expected outcome back in England but a bullish Capello had reminded of his status as a foreigner by actually stating that the final itself is his aim. Not for him the time-honoured English cliche of taking each game as it comes. Perhaps he will soon learn such an approach.
With darkness having descended almost three hours before the kick-off, the bright sunshine of the day was replaced by a night as clear as a bell, conditions that would be expected to suit the altitude-adjusted England in the three-quarters uncovered stadium. Indeed, they began the brighter via the early flourish of Steven Gerrard in scoring the opener. The toils of Liverpool's disastrous season had looked behind him as he ran the midfield in a first half in which England were clearly superior yet succumbed to time-honoured vulnerability and propensity to pratfall.
The darts of Landon Donovan had been causing worries for England, especially when teeing up Jozy Altidore for the type of header that he often missed at Hull. Yet it was Clint Dempsey, another Premier League graduate, who supplied an equaliser via Green's horrific error. The West Ham keeper fumbled himself into joining the likes of Peter Bonetti, Paul Robinson and, rather worryingly, his own understudy David James in the England goalkeeping hall of shame.
In all-too familiar style to followers of the Three Lions, the stuffing had been knocked out of England by the inexplicable. Then Ledley King was next cursed by an adductor injury which rules him out of the next game at the very least. His half-time replacement, Jamie Carragher, was soon booked and then skinned by Altidore before Green redeemed himself by saving from the striker at point-blank range as his team-mates rocked amid American pressure that came in conservative doses.
The USA base-camp objective had clearly been to settle for the draw, a fact confirmed by Tim Howard after the game when he acknowledged that "we did the job". The Everton keeper, officially named man-of-the-match, meanwhile acknowledged the woes of his counterpart when saying of Green: "I feel terrible for him." Such sympathy may not be extended by a raft of the English public, such is their love of a scapegoat.
Yet perspective is best advised. Amid the gloom and blame games, there are signs of a better future. Wayne Rooney grew into the game, looking sharp when going close from long range and also supplying sub Shaun Wright-Phillips with a chance well saved by Howard. Gerrard looked suited to the captain's armband and is soon to be granted more freedom by the return of Gareth Barry in the remaining pair of group games. By then, Green's error will be expected to be looked on as a glitch, a moment of comedy and perhaps the usual piece of bad luck got over with sooner rather than later.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Tim Howard. Perhaps by comparison with his counterpart, he looked safe and assured as England struggled to build on their early lead. He had seemed destined for the sidelines after a collision with Emile Heskey that "felt like agony" but played through the pain barrier in a style befitting of an All-American hero.
COME ON FEAR THE NOISE: Forget the vuvuzuela, the most ear-bleeding sound at World Cup stadia are the gargantuan PA systems installed at host grounds. The pleasing sounds of Bob Marley and Ladysmith Black Mambazo lose their subtlety when played at the volume of a Megadeth concert. And is it necessary for the announcer to read out the scoreline every ten minutes? We know, you know.
USA VERDICT: They celebrated the result with fans as if it were a victory yet might even have won it. But they didn't get greedy. "A good team effort," said coach Bob Bradley. The six-month-long hype of the England game is in the past. They have a week to prepare for Slovenia.
ENGLAND VERDICT: A great start with Gerrard looking capable of inspiring in the style of his Liverpool vintage ebbed away into missed opportunity before calamity came calling. Yet, despite the expected deluge of doom that will follow, there were positives. Green recovered his composure, and Rooney grew into the game late on. It was hard to agree with the strength of Capello's stubborn positivity but a draw is not yet a disaster.