James Lawton: Wayne Rooney wonder goal lifts Roy Hodgson's mood
Published 03/06/2013 | 11:03
For so long we were locked into another bleak example of English football's lost heart and dwindling competence but then, arching in with the light of pure deliverance, was the stunning goal of Wayne Rooney.
It didn't quite do as it promised, which was to repeat the improbable victory of England in Brazil 29 years ago, but this is not the time when anyone in the English game can shrug away such a gift of fight and endurance.
This was a mark of defiance, a refusal to submit to the growing theory that England have become one of the last words in futility on the international stage. Rooney's late strike, after the earlier one of the combative Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, promised an unlikely win but in the end a draw was something to prize.
It meant that England had rescued a little lustre in what is still the most magnetic football field the game has ever known.
For them the incentives for plundering a little historic booty, as in scoring the first triumph of a European team at the Maracana since the solo run of John Barnes in 1984, was surely increased by the scathing assessment of Neymar. Barcelona-bound Neymar still has quite a lot to do if he is to justify his ranking as a sure-fire contributor to the greatest tradition in world football, but he will not fail because of any lack of conviction about his own ability — or the lack of it in his opponents.
He did toss a few crumbs to Rooney and Frank Lampard before seeking to reassure an anxious Maracana audience that all is well with Brazil's World Cup prospects and his central role in them. However, if the brick was wrapped in silk it was no less painful for that.
"England have had good individual players but they never seem to play as a team," said Neymar despite the recent Brazilian defeat at Wembley. "Rooney and Lampard have been among the best in Europe over the last five years but that means nothing if they cannot function as a team. I'm not worried about England at the World Cup at all. You look at Germany, Spain and Argentina – and England have not earned the right for us to consider them a threat."
If England felt this was excessively dismissive they could only thank Joe Hart for the resilient way in which he denied Neymar and his team-mates the opportunity to put immediate flesh on the Doomsday analysis of England's future.
Brazil, who could claim only one win in their last seven games and the scandalising Fifa ranking of 19th, may have been a mere shadow of the team against whom Barnes scored his iconic goal but they did observe an obligation that has not always been at the top of their priorities. They performed the occasional tackle, which was something conspicuously absent when the old Watford hero weaved his way through for a goal which, while filled with fine control, hardly belonged on the same planet as Diego Maradona's run through England two years later.
Last night the agonies of doubt that have surrounded England for so long could only be compounded by a first-half performance which again rarely rose above the slipshod.
Gary Lineker's complaint that Roy Hodgson was leading the team back into the tactical dark ages again looked much less relevant than the discouraging fact that England still at times could not complete the simplest of passes. It hardly helped that Rooney, who for all his trials has not yet been accused of serious technical deficiencies, was among the guilty, and coughed up the ball which quickly fell to the feet of Neymar in a most threatening position.
The cost of such lapses of concentration was exacted soon enough when the consistently aggressive Fred stabbed home the rebound.
However, when England began to unearth a few flashes of competitive zeal in the second half we were reminded that Brazil too are suffering a degree of crisis. Just recently Big Phil Scolari could only dream of the remnants of certainty that carried him to the great prize in Yokohama 11 years ago and now, suddenly, new levels nightmare pressure lurked despite Brazil's overwhelming possession, and not least when Rooney redeemed himself with a pass that Theo Walcott might easily have converted.
That alarm was compounded soon enough when Oxlade-Chamberlain, inhabiting the same pitch as his father Mark when Barnes had his supreme run of virtuosity, scored a goal of quite stunning authority.
It might not have entirely dispersed the darkness around England's age of darkness, no more than Rooney's life-giving late strike.
But here was something to lift the embattled self-regard of English football, a fact which, in all the discouraging circumstances, was not entirely submerged by the finely drilled equaliser of Paulinho.
England may just feel a little better about themselves now. That, in the end, was surely the greatest gift of all.