SAO PAULO (AP) – The English empire continues to crumble.
In soccer, at least.
In a World Cup Qualifier that was comically rained out Tuesday because nobody had thought to close the retractable roof on Warsaw's Narodowy Stadium and so was played on Wednesday instead, Poland scuffed yet more of the sheen off England's once-glimmering reputation. The 1-1 tie frankly flattered the visitors.
The country wherein many continue to consider it their birthright to dominate the game just because they so happened to have coded its modern-day iteration, seemed to make a point of showing just how far it has slipped from the world's highest rung.
England was as safe, mirthless and bland as the ideas of its manager, Roy Hodgson, who continues to insist on playing his hopelessly outdated formation of two banks of four behind a pair of strikers. Even though England had most of the ball, the vivacious and imaginative Poles produced the bulk of chances, even though they were without their talismanic captain and winger Kuba Blaszczykowski.
Unlike Hodgson, Waldemar Fornalik manages to capitalize on his key players' strengths. His playmaker Ludovic Obraniak deftly directed traffic towards the overlapping runs on the wings while star striker Robert Lewandowski was allowed to operate up front by himself, offering him the room to make the most of his immense mobility.
The English, meanwhile, remain masters only in stodginess and wastefulness. They were slow, static, sloppy on the ball and devoid of ideas. By playing the conservative James Milner on the right and a central midfielder in Tom Cleverley on the left, Hodgson robbed his side of width. The central pairing of Michael Carrick and Steven Gerrard was thus easily marked out of the game and forced into a spate of turnovers by Poland's midfield trio. England relied, as always, on Wayne Rooney to whip up some magic while Jermaine Defoe was starved of service.
Rooney delivered in the 31st minute, when his free header off a Gerrard corner grazed off a shoulder and into the net. But it was a lead that looked as undeserved as it did unlikely to last. Indeed, Kamil Glik profited from some shoddy aerial work from Joleon Lescott and Joe Hart on another corner in the 70th minute to head home the equalizer.
However forgettable, the game did add gravitas to the suspicion that this England is in need of a renaissance. It will never take place under Hodgson, mind, who seems quite content to squeeze the last drops of performance out of a past-it golden generation and an underwhelming supporting cast. But looking at the big picture, England would seem unlikely to improve so long as it is built around the remnants of an aging core that is either stagnant or complacent or both. Following John Terry's blessed international retirement, only Gerrard and Ashley Cole remain from that gifted group born around 1980.
In its wake has emerged plenty of exciting talent. Defenders Kyle Walker and Phil Jones; midfielders Tom Cleverley, Jonjo Shelvey, Jack Rodwell and - when he's finally healthy - Jack Wilshere; wingers Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; striker Danny Welbeck. Combined with Rooney and Hart - a godsend for England, a half-decent goalie - they will doubtless form the spine of the new England. Yet the product out on the field remains a cheap impersonation of the Three Lions of the last decade. With one-time world beaters who have moved on or been phased out replaced by cheaper cuts of meat, slightly-above-average Premier Leaguers who won't kick down any doors internationally.
But rather than accept that the current team is going nowhere and that there is merit in taking a step back and beginning afresh, Hodgson seems to cling to somewhat proven players in hopes of eking out enough results to retain respectability. This team will probably make the 2014 World Cup. And once there, it will, like in every edition since 1990 when it reached the semifinals, do nothing. England hasn't reached a World Cup semifinal since 1990, nor has it been to the final four of the Euro since 1996.
Hodgson isn't entirely deaf to the cries for rejuvenation. He does hand his younger players the odd string of games or minutes off the bench. Yet by failing to implement a playing style that caters to the athleticism and dynamism this young bunch has to spare, he is only frustrating the process.
By sticking with a fading generation that has already failed to re-enter the world's ruling class, the English are only drifting farther from it. If drab games like those against Poland on Wednesday are going to serve any kind of useful purpose, it will be to rouse the English from their slumber and re-think national team policy.