Romero & Neuer highlight Hart folly
World Cup 2010: Johannesburg
Buried deep among the ruins of England's World Cup catastrophe remains a dilemma that refused to go away throughout their dismal showing in South Africa: the goalkeeping conundrum.
In the aftermath of the mauling at the hands of Germany, far bigger issues concerning the future of English football have been pored over, with the frenzied search for answers showing no signs of abating.
What if, what if, what if?
But ponder this: What if Fabio Capello had named Joe Hart as his number one goalkeeper before the tournament started? What if Hart, the country's in-form custodian, had been between the sticks during the game against the United States, when Robert Green gifted away a goal and England's campaign never truly recovered?
Lack of experience has often been cited as one of the reasons Hart failed to convince Capello he was a better option than the error-prone Green or the 39-year-old James.
Yet when footballing powerhouses Germany and Argentina meet in Cape Town in their World Cup quarter-final on Saturday, they will do so with goalkeepers who have a combined age of 47 and a mere 19 caps between them - eight of which have been gained in this competition.
You could certainly forgive Hart, capped three times by Capello, for casting an envious glance in the direction of Argentina glovesman Sergio Romero and Germany number one Manuel Neuer.
As the 23-year-old Englishman decides what to do with his summer holiday, Neuer, a year his senior, and Romero, a mere two months older, play in the biggest match of their careers with the eyes of the world upon them.
Yet at the start of the season - no, even towards the end of the season - neither Romero nor Neuer were the definite first-choice goalkeepers for their country. In fact, as Hart kept clean sheet after clean sheet during a coming-of-age campaign on loan at Birmingham City, he was probably the likelier of the three to feature in South Africa this summer.
But whereas Capello procrastinated, waiting until two hours before England's opening game of the tournament to choose his goalkeeper, Argentina coach Diego Maradona and Germany boss Joachim Loew played the hand dealt to them with a decisiveness befitting the size of the event they were heading into.
You could argue that both Argentina and Germany found themselves in a more vulnerable position than England, such were their respective keeping quandaries.
When he took over the Albiceleste in October 2008, Maradona found a team desperately short of a top-class stopper. During their 18-match qualification campaign, they used four goalies, with Roberto Abbondanzieri, Juan Pablo Carrizo and Mariano Andujar all tried and tested before Maradona plumped for Romero for the crucial last three fixtures.
It was a somewhat controversial choice, with AZ Alkmaar keeper Romero - almost unknown in his homeland - a tender age for a keeper. He did have success on his side, however, with a Dutch league title in the 2008/09 season bolstering his CV as scouts from bigger European sides began to take interest.
Germany's situation was more tragic than it was desperate. On 10 November 2009, the country's number one Robert Enke committed suicide, while his successor, Rene Adler, suffered a serious rib injury and was ruled out of the World Cup.
Neuer, who was part of Germany's European Under-21-winning side last summer, was suddenly first choice, with Loew confirming the Schalke keeper would start the World Cup ahead of Tim Weise and Hans-Joerg Butt a month before the tournament began.
And as Hart made do with nothing more than a training role in South Africa as Green and then James stood between the sticks for England, Romero and Neuer blossomed in the roles that had been thrust upon them, not just on the pitch - with both men conceding only two goals in four games thus far - but off it too.
So much of the talk since England's exit has been about the psychological aspect of playing in a competition like the World Cup. We know the England players are good enough, so the thought process goes, therefore they must be lacking mental fortitude instead.
By not throwing Hart - a man who will have designs on the England goalkeeper's jersey for the next 10 years - into the fray, Capello not only missed a crucial opportunity to pick his most in-form side but he cost Hart the chance to really experience a major tournament.
This experience comes not from merely being at the World Cup - it's about being in the World Cup, being part of the story. While Romero has been having his say on vuvuzelas ("when you talk you are not heard") and goalline technology ("football is for the cunning, not for technology") and Neuer has played mind games with England ("I fooled the referee into thinking Frank Lampard's shot was not over the line"), Hart has suffered in silence.
He has missed out on the heat of battle and has not had to deal with tricky questions from foreign journalists either. Apart from the fact that he is still a better keeper than Green and James, Hart has probably learned precious little from his first major tournament.
Neither Romero nor Neuer would attest to being the best goalkeeper in the world at the moment - Romero's mis-calculation almost allowed Mexico's Carlos Salcido to score in their last-16 tie, while Neuer's reckless rush from goal ended with Matthew Upson heading home for England - but the lessons they are learning from playing at the highest level of their sport are immeasurable.
With a shadow still cast over Green and James surely at the end of his international career, Hart is almost certain to be in goal when England face Hungary in a friendly at Wembley on 11 August.
But by then, a golden chance to further this talented young goalkeeper's education - as well as his reputation - will have already been lost.