Wembley not Mexico poses biggest threat to England
It is not only the likes of Ledley King, Jamie Carragher and Adam Johnson who will come under close scrutiny at Wembley on Monday. The stakes have surely never been higher for the national stadium's infamous pitch.
Ever since the turf was ripped up following the FA Cup semi-finals, England's friendly match against Mexico has stood out as the one which has caused most concern.
Given the prize on offer, a poor surface for the Championship play-off final was regrettable. Considering the worldwide television audience, an FA Cup final pitch described as "terrible" by John Terry was nothing short of an embarrassment - and no doubt added to the concern over the country's 2018 bid.
But on Monday the potential for damage reaches its peak. If the turf causes an injury to any of England's players only a week before coach Fabio Capello's announces his World Cup squad, then the levels of public anger towards Wembley - and those responsible for it - will reach unprecedented levels.
Do not be fooled by Capello's surprisingly calm assessment of the pitch when we asked him about it at England's training camp in Austria last week. His opinion that it was "not perfect" may be the understatement of the year.
There remains genuine worry inside the England camp that the already fragile fitness of players like Rio Ferdinand and Ledley King could be exacerbated by the Wembley pitch.
As for Wayne Rooney, his damaged ankle, sustained in March, is still being treated, the striker sitting out some sessions in Austria to give him time to regain full fitness.
Will Capello risk Rooney against Mexico? Photo: Getty Images
Capello has spoken of Rooney's admirable desire to play every match he can, but the Italian will be all too aware that the striker suffered a knee problem earlier this season when he played at Wembley twice in quick succession. "The Wembley pitch killed him," fumed Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson at the time.
Remember that Capello has already lost one possible World Cup candidate to the Wembley pitch. Michael Owen, who has played in the last five major tournaments in which England have competed, was undoubtedly back on Capello's radar when he ruptured his hamstring playing at Wembley in the Carling Cup final. Again, Sir Alex was clear in his diagnosis. The pitch, which he described as a "ploughed field", was to blame.
Losing Owen is one thing but England cannot afford to be without Rooney in South Africa. It will be interesting to see for how long Capello risks him against Mexico, if at all.
Ominously, Blackpool midfielder Gary Taylor-Fletcher departed Wembley on crutches on Saturday after twisting his ankle in the play-off win over Cardiff. The midfielder said the injury was "the fault of the ground after the studs got caught" and has told England's players to "be careful". Rooney and co have been warned.
"The FA have to decide if this is a football pitch or an events stadium," said Terry a week ago. The Chelsea captain's frustration was understandable but the reality is that the governing body has no choice. The Green Day concerts and NFL matches will continue.
Why? Because of the £425m the FA borrowed in order to pay for it, the stadium has to remain a multi-purpose venue until at least 2023 to generate maximum revenue and afford interest payments that were as high as £27m in 2007/08.
The current pitch is the 11th laid since Wembley opened three years ago but there could be as many as seven new pitches a year for the next 13 years.
The Institute of Groundsmanship (IOG), angered when one of its most esteemed operators, Steve Welch, was sacked as Wembley's head groundsman last year, was relieved to be asked to help solve the problem following the FA Cup semi-finals.
But the IOG is disappointed and surprised that, five weeks ago to the day since giving its views at a special summit with Wembley's managing director, Roger Maslin, it has yet to be asked back. Nor has Wembley reviewed its decision not to have a head groundsman.
Talking of which, the wonderful surface at the Santiago Bernabeu for Saturday's Champions League final was the work of an Englishman. Paul Burgess was responsible for the carpet at the Emirates before joining Real Madrid as head groundsman last year.
Since arriving at Madrid, Burgess has been credited with drastically improving the Bernabeu's playing surface, despite the challenges of a stadium that stands more than 2,000ft above sea level and which has to contend with drastically varying temperatures.
This time next year, at the end of the most intense time in its calendar, Wembley will again come under intense scrutiny again when it hosts the Champions League final. One cannot help think it might be worth the FA seeking the thoughts of Burgess before then.
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