England go into the forthcoming World Cup having endured a disastrous build-up which has seen the mood of optimism which surrounded the team following its impressive qualifying campaign dissipate in a maelstrom of scandal, innuendo and catastrophe. How very English. The John Terry/Wayne Bridge situation, Ashley Cole’s tumultuous private life and Lord Triesman’s misguided comments have all shifted, to various extents, the focus of both the England camp and the media from on-field matters to off-field irrelevances. Add in to the equation the injuries suffered by Rio Ferdinand and David Beckham and the concerns over the fitness levels of Gareth Barry, Wayne Rooney and Ledley King, and a chaotic picture of the team’s preparations ahead of this summer’s tournament emerges.

However, many England fans have continued to remain blindly optimistic throughout the various traumas suffered by their team in recent months, clinging to the vast experience of their coach, Fabio Capello, as one of the few remaining reasons for positivity ahead of their team’s African excursion. Capello is without doubt one of the finest European managers of his generation, having won (including the two Scudetti Juventus were later stripped of as a result of the Calciopoli scandal) ten major titles in Italy and Spain and gaining his worldwide reputation as a master tactician in the process. But the Italian’s tenure with England, whilst giving supporters hope in the short-term, could have serious long-term consequences for the team should they fail to deliver in South Africa.

Now, a hypothetical, yet not wholly unrealistic scenario for you: England battle through the group, drawing with the USA and grinding out a couple of unimpressive wins over Algeria and Slovenia to narrowly top the group on goal difference. Capello’s team then scrape past Serbia/Ghana in the Last 16 before going out in the Quarter-Finals to France. Now, if that were to happen, and I readily admit that it’s a sizeable “if”, the tabloid press would go into hysterical overdrive and there would undoubtedly be calls for Capello to be sacked. Although the FA would be unlikely to axe the Italian, Capello could conceivably walk away should he feel that he had failed in his role, something which, with many of Europe’s big clubs covetous of his services, is not as far-fetched as some might like to think.

The main question here, however, is not Capello’s ability to do his job, he is as good as the perfect man for the job, but instead over the players’ ability and mentality. After all, if Capello can’t coax a succesful tournament out of what is supposedly a “golden generation” of English footballing talent, then who can? In past tournaments inept management has been blamed for underwhelming performances in light of almost insurmountable expectations. Sven Goran-Eriksson fell foul of such a situation in 2006, with Glenn Hoddle going a similar way after the 1998 tournament (albeit with his comments about handicapped people pushing him over the precipice). This time around, though, such is Capello’s immaculately consistent record, the coach is much less of a target for blame, something which may well cause England fans to question the ability of their team’s players and reassess their prospects in the months and years to come.

In four years time players such as John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard are unlikely to continue to be in the frame for international selection, potentially leaving Wayne Rooney as the only world-class member of what could be a far more limited group of players. Should 2010 become another year of disappointment, will England have to revise their expectations downward in the years to come, viewing quarter-final appearances as a success rather than being built-up as potential winners every few years?

Of course, as an Englishman myself, I’d like to think that the team can give a good account of themselves in South Africa, but if they do have a disappointing tournament, World Cup 2010 could be seen as a watershed in English football, the point at which England started building afresh with a new group of players and, perhaps, came to have more realistic expectations of themselves. It may not come to that, and I may well end up with egg on my face for writing this post, but if Capello’s England struggle, where else can the FA turn?