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World Cup shows England team overrated

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Yet again, the World Cup has produced cold, hard evidence to blow away the long enduring myth that England is a mighty soccer power.

It is simply not true, not unless the definition of a power is "a country that won something a long, long time ago but has since struggled to make much of a World Cup mark."

The more decades pass, the more England's sole World Cup victory of 1966 looks like a one-time, special moment. Since then, the only nations it has beaten beyond the initial group stages of the World Cup have been Ecuador, Denmark, Belgium, Cameroon and Paraguay — none of which can be considered among the soccer elite.

So Germany's 4-1 victory Sunday over England to reach the quarterfinals shouldn't have been a surprise, because it was the continuation of a trend that began a long time ago. Germany made England look like just another of the small-to-middling soccer nations that it makes a habit of trampling over on its way to success. Since it lost in 1966 to England, Germany has advanced 11 times to the finals of the World Cup and European Championships and won five. England has not reached another final.

So the quicker England recognizes and accepts its mediocrity, the quicker it can get to work on long-term plans to try to do something about it.

England's habitual knee-jerk excuse for a second-tier performance in a major championship — making the manager into a scapegoat — is beyond threadbare now. Continuing to believe that England fields world-class teams which are consistently undone by poor leadership is conceited and ignores this fact: The only side that England beat (narrowly) at this World Cup was Slovenia — population 2 million.

For that and other failures over the years, England players must share blame. The likes of David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, John Terry and other members of England's so-called "Golden Generation" simply proved undeserving of that flattering tag they have long carried around like an unfulfilled promise. Only when clubs pay them handsomely do English players consistently meet expectations. Coaches of England's national team, including the latest, Fabio Capello, are not solely at fault.

Some blamed Capello's tactics. But that's too easy. His players too often looked as if they simply couldn't be bothered to lift themselves for the World Cup as, for example, Diego Maradona's players are doing. Maradona is not a managerial genius. He doesn't have Capello's long resume of coaching success. But he does have players who truly look like they want to win the World Cup and who clearly are enjoying playing as a team. That was never the case for England at this tournament.

Capello generously tried to explain away England's poor performance with the jaded excuse that players were exhausted by long seasons playing for their English clubs.

But Carlos Tevez also plays for an English club, Manchester City, and he's been as sparky as a firework for Argentina in South Africa.

Wesley Sneijder played and won the Champions League final just three weeks before the start of the World Cup yet still found the energy to score on Monday in the Netherlands' 2-1 win over Slovakia. Thomas Mueller also played in that final in Madrid and yet still netted twice for Germany against England.

So put that red-herring aside. Even England striker Emile Heskey discounts it.

"You can't blame the season in England for what happened," Heskey said in comments reported on FIFA's website. "Germany played a long, hard season as well so you can't really use that as an excuse. The German league is just as tough as ours, even tougher some might say."

England will now contemplate what went wrong, like France and Italy. But the difference is that they won World Cup in 1998 and 2006, respectively.

For England, it has been 44 years — far too long to still believe that it's anything more than a mediocre soccer nation.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.