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Nov 13, 2011

Wembley sunset

The last time Spain won at Wembley, the old one - was in 1981. They won 2-1, and I was there in schoolteacher mode, surrounded by a phalanx of adolescent schoolkids that I'd accompanied on a coach from Hull. If any of them are reading this, I forgive that kid who 'forgot' to pay for his hotdog. It seems like another life ago, from a different planet, and not only because I no longer earn my bread from teaching 'Kes' on a Friday afternoon, but because of the different set of expectations that accompanied the game back then.

• Brewin: Keep calm and carry on
• Walcott: We can compete with best
• Cesc amazed by England negativity

You can see the goals here, but the fact that Spain won the game, and the fact that they had a decent side back then (they usually did), with players like Zamora, Juanito, Camacho, Gordillo, Maceda, Arconada - was irrelevant. England had a half-decent side too, and were expected to beat the hosts of the imminent 1982 World Cup. Hoddle, Keegan, Brooking, Robson, Clemence, Francis... I'll stop there.

I'll start again by waking up thirty years later, as an Englishman who lives in the same city as the two Spanish goalscorers that night, Jesus Maria Zamora and Jesus Mari Satrustegui. It would have been difficult to imagine, back then, that English football would have taken so many steps backwards that their manager - in a friendly game no less, decided that the best he might hope for at the New Wembley would be a scoreless draw. And that the England fans would be bouncing around in a fit of disbelief (and their usual mild-to-middling self-deceit) at the 1-0 scoreline against the world champions. Thirty years ago, England had a side whose quality-strength balance was nicely in place. If their manager (Ron Greenwood) had parked the bus, for whatever reason, and renounced any semblance of football because he didn't think his squad was capable of playing it, he would have been placed on the next ferry from Dover and sent into exile for treason.

If England woke up happy on Sunday, then fine. After 20 years over here, I'm past caring about English hubris. The strains of Match of the Day still move me, but if the absence of Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere means that England cannot, at the very least, have a go, then I don't see the point. Maybe Fabio Capello is preparing for a catenaccio approach to this summer's European tournament, and if so, then it has to be admitted that England's defence played well on Saturday night. Joleon Lescott was England's best player, and Scott Parker's harrying of Spain's advanced line in the second half was wonderful to behold. But I can remember only two occasions when England put together a move that resembled football.

The goal was fine - taking advantage of a free kick in a dangerous position, and Darren Bent showed good striker's skills in taking off before Sergio Ramos, but that's all that Bent contributed. Danny Welbeck looked slightly more interesting later on, as Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos tired, but it would help if he could control the ball. Good pragmatics, I hear you say? One attack, one goal. And I would agree. But England were at home, and it was a friendly. If the manager can't bring himself to do any more than close down, harry and hassle, and steal a goal from a set-piece, then the sun has finally set on English football.

On English TV's post-mortem, the affable but strangely timid Gareth Southgate - who looks and talks like a well-meaning but incompetent Deputy Headmaster, insisted that England's performance was valid because "you can't play open against Spain". Thus speaketh an ex-defender. Even if we concede a teeny-weeny bit of rope to Gareth, surely it's possible to play 'semi-open', given the fact that you're playing at home, and given the fact that it's a friendly, and given the fact that playing with a bit of confidence and creativity and losing would be much better than playing phoney catenaccio, looking scared and winning.

And what of Spain? The game said more about England than it did about the visitors, who went about their usual stuff, but just with a little less intensity. They've won all their official competitive matches since winning the World Cup (eight games) and lost four of the nine friendlies they've played in the same period - two of them heavily to Portugal and Argentina. Maybe they just can't bring themselves to show the urgency they began to manifest once Lampard had scored. David Villa hit the post and Cesc Fabregas should really have done better on two occasions, but in general, there was a lack of speed and bite in the final third. The various changes to the personnel throughout the game didn't help, but with the massed ranks of quality, it hardly matters that Xavi goes off, and Santi Cazorla comes on. Neither David Silva nor Andres Iniesta were at their best, but you could put that down to England's game plan, as Frank Lampard announced after the game. Sure Frank, but the game was about your team as well. You won't be getting carried away? Glad to hear it, captain.

At best, you might argue that this is the sort of scene that Spain can expect in Poland-Ukraine this summer. Switzerland showed that it could be done - but it seems to me that apart from the lowest-common-denominator tactics, you need a good dose of luck thrown in, a bit of intimidation (Spain can still lose their heads, if provoked in the right sort of way), and Spain having an off-day. So you might as well try to play football, and hope for those factors too. What's the difference? Correct me if I'm wrong, but all this 'Barcelona are invincible' stuff is catching on, and spreading like an incurable disease. It may justify a certain approach to playing them, at club level. But we're talking about internationals here. This was England v Spain, there's a difference, and I'm not the only one to think it. The Spanish press was almost unanimous in its condemnation of England, but it was a critique tinged with a certain amount of sadness. The Spanish like to believe in the English, and despite Capello's experience of both cultures, he clearly hasn't understood this.

Spain had various things to celebrate, despite the defeat. One was Vicente Del Bosque's 50th game in charge, of which he has won 43. Not bad. The other was Iker Casillas' 126th match, completed by the raw age of thirty. In playing the first half (he gave way to Pepe Reina in the second) he equalled Andoni Zubizarreta's record (set in 1998), and will obviously end up with many more caps than the Basque goalkeeper won. He might even manage to beat Mohamed Al Deayea's record of 178, but the national competition is strong.

Indeed, the amazing thing about Casillas' record is the fact that during the period that he has been the first-choice, it has been a golden age of Spanish goalies. Victor Valdes has one measly cap to his name, and Pepe Reina is no slouch. David de Gea waits in the wings, as did Andres Palop for years. Oddly enough, Casillas first pulled on the Spanish shirt for the U-15 side at the old Wembley, so his appearance on Saturday had some extra poetry attached. He gave his shirt to Joe Hart after the game, a gesture that seemed harmonious enough. Hart is good, but it took Capello too long to realise. Never mind - he's only being paid £5 million a year to advance the cause of English football.

In short, nobody is panicking over here. Spain just caught the tiki-taka disease at Wembley, and overdid the possession stuff without ever really making it count. There might be a question mark or two over the full-back situation over the coming months, because if Ramos is going to play in the centre with Pique, then Alvaro Arbeloa is a good club player who might not cut the mustard at international level, I mean over the long term. Jordi Alba looks like Joan Capdevila's natural successor, but it's early days yet. As for the rest, it's heaving with quality. Fernando Torres might just count himself lucky to be Del Bosque's pet, but as long as he's not the first-choice, Spain should continue to be fine. Theirs is still the template to copy. No English player or journalist would deny that, so what about the national manager? It's time to join his friend Silvio on the golf course, and give Stuart Pearce a chance to make a mess of it too. But at least he'll make a mess of it with the right intentions.

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