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Euro 2012 preview — The knucklehead factor

The word knucklehead has enjoyed a revival lately. Even President Obama has used it – to describe people who would take a bullet for him, but who made serious errors of judgment in Colombia.

Usually, though, the term is used by sportswriters to refer to talented players whose immaturity undermines their play and, more importantly, that of their team. Such players – even one of them if he’s central enough – can destroy a team. Just ask the Washington Wizards who in the past few years have labored under the weight of at least four knuckleheads: Gilbert Arenas, Andray Blatche, and (to a lesser degree) Nick Young and JaVale McGee.

But at least having knuckleheads on your local team’s squad doesn’t reflect poorly on your locale. For example, Arenas and Young are products of Southern California, while Blatche comes from up-state New York and McGee from Michigan.

When your national soccer team has a high knucklehead factor, however it’s a different story. Then, it’s not just your team that suffers; your national image might also take a hit.

Consider England. Wayne Rooney is the best English attacking player of his generation. But for years he was unable to control his temper on the field. Rooney’s sending off against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup probably cost England the opportunity to advance to the semi-finals for the first time since 1990 (it was reminiscent of David Beckham’s sending off against Argentina in 1998).

Rooney was only 20 at the time, and gradually he seemed to become a more mature player. But he continued occasionally to lash out in frustration, particularly when he wasn’t seeing enough of the ball. Which is why he should never play as lone forward.

But that’s just where England was deploying Rooney in the closing stages of the last Euro 2012 qualifying match against Montenegro. Rooney wasn’t seeing much of the ball, but it shouldn’t have mattered because England was coasting to qualification.

Nonetheless, a frustrated Rooney committed an ugly foul and justly received a red card.

As a result he is suspended from England’s first two matches at Euro 2012. Without him, England’s attack doesn’t figure to frighten anyone.

John Terry is the best English defender of his era and an inspiring leader on the field. He’s also a world class knucklehead. Whether he’s drunkenly harassing grieving American tourists after 9/11, shagging the partner of a friend and teammate, reportedly contemplating mutiny at a World Cup, or getting sent off in a Champions League semifinal, the man never disappoints.

Last year, in contentious match for his club Chelsea, Terry became embroiled with QPR’s Anton Ferdinard. Ferdinand, who is Black, happens to be the younger brother of Rio Ferdinand, Terry’s long-time partner in the center of the England defense. As Terry was walking away, the cameras detected him shouting “f___ing black ____” (or expletives to that effect). Ferdinand didn’t hear this, but one of Terry’s teammates did. He told Terry he should make it right with Ferdinand after the match.

Terry did talk to Ferdinand, asking him if there was any problem between the two. Ferdinand said no. But when he learned what Terry had said on the field, he became doubly upset, first because of the language and second because he felt Terry had sandbagged him. Rio Ferdinand was also unhappy.

Terry, who denies having delivered a racial slur, will be prosecuted for his remark (yes in England it’s a crime to say “f___ing black ____” — footballers aren’t the only knuckleheads in Old Blighty). The case won’t be heard until the summer. But the announcement of the prosecution triggered this chain of events:

The English Football Association stripped Terry of his captaincy of the English team. England’s manager Fabio Capello resigned, purportedly in protest but quite possibly because he didn’t want to be part of the impending train wreck at Euro 2012; and a Terry-Rio Ferdinand pairing in England’s central defense became, presumably, impossible. (Terry is in the England squad but Ferdinand is not).

In sum, England has lost its captain, its manager, and its long-time, solid central defensive partnership (plus Wayne Rooney for two matches). The F.A. took its time before appointing a new manager. That manager, Roy Hodgson, is an able guy with experience at this level (for example, he guided Switzerland to the round of 16 at 1994 World Cup). However, he hasn’t had enough time to put his stamp on the team.

But at least England enters Euro 2012 without the usual burden of inflated expectations. Few are expecting much from this side; most would be satisfied if England emerges from its group (which also includes France, Sweden, and Ukraine, the host team) into the round of 8.

This task seems doable, though not easy, barring additional knucklehead behavior.

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