Pele, the greatest footballer ever, has proved a notoriously dreadful analyst since his retirement. But perhaps none of his pronouncements has been so widely mocked as his suggestion, before Brazil and England met in the 2002 World Cup, that the best player at the tournament so far had been the English defensive midfielder Nicky Butt.
Even the jingoistic Daily Mail couldn't get behind that one. Nicky Butt was the greatest case of social promotion in modern football. A Manchester native, he came up through the United academy with the Golden Generation -- Beckham, Scholes, Giggs -- and rode their talent to six Premier League championships, which Butt himself spent largely on the bench. Butt couldn't pass, couldn't dribble, couldn't run, and in interviews exhibited an abject and uncomfortable dimness. If David Beckham looks the part of an English cavalry officer, and Wayne Rooney a cruel but charismatic sergeant, Butt was the boy left to mind the luggage. The less valuable luggage. But for Manchester United, and for England, Butt had one great virtue: He was a defensive midfielder who knew his limits. He stood in front of the back four, absorbed opposing attacks (sometimes well, sometimes less well) and permitted the greater talents around him to flow forward. His distinctive move was a distracted stumble across the path of opposing attackers. Pele's enthusing has made Nicky Butt, who is now at the tail end of his career, one of the great jokes of modern English football. He was also, in his prime, exactly the kind of player that England miss right now.
Given the vast advantages England will enjoy this evening in Rustenberg in talent, experience, tactical complexity, and stork-like center forwards, it is difficult to imagine a route to victory for the Americans. But in the spirit of irrational nationalist optimism, there is one possibility. Fabio Capello, a legendary tactician, has assembled a strong side with two deep imbalances. First, until the return of Gareth Barry from injury, England will play without a single recognized defensive midfielder, instead deploying the tremendously talented but attacking-minded Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the center of midfield. Capello has chosen to play two fullbacks -- Johnson and Cole -- who are far more comfortable and capable attacking than defending. Most teams will have four of five players who think primarily of defending, and five or six who want to attack first; England has two natural defenders, and eight attackers. Mexico's stumble against South Africa showed some of the risk of pushing fullbacks too far forward, and the American side, for all its limitations, is perfectly designed to exploit this: The US is quick and very good on the counterattack and its two best players -- Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey -- and wide midfielders, the perfect position from which to exploit the space left by overly adventurous fullbacks. A Nicky Butt-like figure might provide some modicum of cover and, together with England's extraordinary center backs, be expected to repel American counterattacks. But England has no Nicky Butt. And so it is possible for the nakedly jingoistic Americans to see a possibility of victory -- however improbable, however slight -- and to dream that in a week Pele, absurdly, may be calling some spectacularly limited American player the best at the Cup so far.