PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA–Displaying the poise and ball control that established them as early favorites headed into the group stage of the World Cup, England easily trounced a squad of inflatable obstacle dummies made up to look like Slovenia 3-0 today at Nelson Mandelay Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth.
The beleaguered squad bounced back from disappointing performances against the USA and Algeria earlier in the tournament, relying on its trademark passing skills and well-honed set-piece orchestration to foil the surprising Slovenians, who came into the game hoping for at least a draw to advance into the last 16.
The English side’s task was made much easier when Slovenia failed to answer the call for the opening kickoff, and were replaced by the towering balloon figures, each approximately three metres tall and filled with helium; the fanciful figures swayed gently with the cool South African southern coastal breeze as English players darted to and fro among them.
No official explanation for the substitution was immediately forthcoming; FIFA officials insisted a statement would be read by the Slovenian team’s manager at a later date.
Still, even though its opponent was inanimate, and appeared to be fixed in place by giant tethers and some kind of wobbly, sticky base, victory was far from assured by England. The entirely red-clad Three Lions clan struggled in the early going, forcing offsides on itself again and again as exasperated manager Fabio Capello looked on from the sidelines, fingers firmly rooted in his rapidly thinning hair.
An early chance by Wayne Rooney was waved off when the striker was called for a taunting foul, triggered, apparently, by a disparaging comment Rooney seemed to feel was issued by one of the inflatable defenders. Several other English players quickly appeared by his side to haul the Manchester United forward away from a possible second booking.
Although Slovenia was slow to press an attack of its own, several opportunities nonetheless nearly slipped through the hands of goalkeeper David James, a last-minute selection by Capello over his second choice, “Absent.”
The English side finally broke through in the 43rd minute of the game when Emile Heskey punched his way into the Slovenian box and headed in a clean pass from Steven Gerrard. A second goal before halftime was prevented, however, when Heskey failed to maneuver his way around an immobile Slovenia defender and take advantage of an empty net situation created by a slow leak on the part of the Slovenian keeper.
Although officials were able to reinflate the goalkeeper before the start of the second half, it was not enough to prevent a burgeoning blowout, as the suddenly rejuvenated English group sensed a shift in its fortunes and pressed its attack, scoring twice in five minutes when first Gerrard and later Rooney took advantage of well-managed corner kick opportunities to knock in the game’s second and third goals.
The score would stand, though, as Slovenia rallied for a spirited defense to quell the bleeding, although the damage had already been done. When the final whistle blew, the score stood at 3-0 England, with the jubilant English players confused only by their seeming inability to exchange shirts with the Slovenian side.
“Hopefully this gets things going in a positive direction for us,” Rooney said after the match. “I know people will say ‘Ah, they just beat a bunch of [deleted] inflatables,’ but I’d like to see them try. It’s a lot harder than it looks, mate.”
Capello later revealed that GK James would be replaced by a giant inflatable figure of his own devising during the team’s next round match.