RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- Ten minutes north of Rustenburg, a mining town in South Africa's North-West province, it's suddenly California: the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus in Phokeng oozes an unexpected kind of relaxed, spacious sophistication. The giant hotel and sports facilities complex bears testament to the riches of the local Bafokeng tribe. The "people of the dew" own the licensing rights to the area's platinum mines.
Once you pass a security cordon staffed by a small army of policemen and guards, a red carpet shows the way to a white tent in the middle distance. Phokeng looks nothing like Germany's Bühlertal, where England trained in 2006, yet the sense of déjà vu hits you almost immediately. For starters, the media tent is identical to the one used four years ago, down to the imported chocolate bars on offer. On stage, a moody looking Steven Gerrard talks about Wayne Rooney's need to control his aggression: "We want him to take it out on the opposition rather than the referee", says England's new captain, wary of the fact that World Cup referees have been provided with a list of English swearwords by FIFA. The 29-year-old Gerrard dismisses talk of the U.S. targeting the Manchester United forward; "I don't know about that, we'll have to wait and see," he said. "But I think Wayne's experienced enough now to deal with it even if he is. Wayne understands that we need him on the pitch. He's a very important player for us."
A search through the archives shows you that the same concerns (and answers) could be heard as far back as Euro 2004 in Portugal. Time seems to have stood still for England in another sense, too: the dreaded subject of a Frank Lampard/Gerrard partnership in central midfield is back on the agenda again. Gerrard tries his best to sound positive: "I've said on many occasions I enjoy playing with Frank. He's a superb player, and we're looking forward, if we are selected against the USA, to making it work again." His body language and tone of voice betray an unease, however. Gerrard is clearly not too excited about the prospect of being used as a defensive shield behind Lampard, who will be allowed to go on the sort of marauding runs that the Liverpool skipper so relishes.
Gerrard sounds equally unconvincing when he talks about leading out England against the U.S. on Saturday. "It's the stuff dreams are made off," he says rather flatly, then stresses that he feels "sick in the stomach" for injured captain Rio Ferdinand, who in turn had of course only inherited the armband earlier this year after the John Terry sex scandal. Gerrard won't change his quiet style on the pitch, he insists, before saying that he will be looking to concentrate on "the positive rather than the negative of the situation." It's a strange turn of phrase considering the circumstances.
Gerrard has long embodied the very mystery of his generation: why are they world-class in the Premier League but meek underachievers in an England shirt at big competitions? With the man from Huyton, the suspicion has always been that he simply cares more for his club, a suspicion that Gerrrard himself has done little to dispel. In his autobiography, he confessed to being distracted by a mooted move to Chelsea during the 2006 World Cup. This year, there's of course even more upheaval at debt-ridden Anfield. Rafael Benitez has gone but not yet been replaced, star striker Fernando Torres quite possibly wants out and Gerrard might be tempted by Real Madrid. "I'm not here to talk about Liverpool," he admonishes a reporter, perhaps in an attempt to banish his thoughts about the situation back home.
"Stevie G" is slightly more persuasive when he talks about England's ambition "to stamp our authority on the tournament" and the eagerness of the squad to get started: "the coaching staff had to hold us back in training this morning". But even these lines are delivered with his trademark pained expression. One can't help but wonder whether he's the most reluctant, unhappiest England captain ever.
Meanwhile, there's almost no talk about the actual game on Saturday. Gerrard doesn't agree that Saturday's meeting has added importance due to the two sides' status as group favourites -- "all games are tough," he says -- but admits that Bob Bradley's men are "a very strong team." The lack of attention to the opponent is not necessarily a sign of ignorance, nor arrogance; England is simply too self-occupied to worry about the U.S. too much at this stage. It appears that Rooney's temper, the odd couple in the middle (Gerrard/Lampard) and thoroughly unconvincing performances in the last friendlies play much heavier on the minds of Fabio Capello's squad than the particular threat posed by the likes of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey.
The mood in the camp seems to have changed neatly in line with the three captains they have seen in as many months. Terry's patriotic fervor and Rio Ferdinand's cool confidence has now given way to Gerrard's brooding. You can see it in his face, in the face of the FA officials and even in the demeanor of the England press corps, who are fighting fatigue before a ball has been kicked in anger: cautious optimism has been replaced by mild fear. The fear that nothing will really change for the perennial quarterfinalists this June, nothing at all, except for the surroundings.