Donovan begins England-USA mind games
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LOS ANGELES – The World Cup countdown has entered its final month, but hostilities between the United States and Group C rival England have already started in earnest.
Just a day after all 32 nations announced their provisional 30-man rosters, Landon Donovan, the USA's best and highest profile player, wasted no time in cranking up the heat on the England team and its biggest star, Wayne Rooney.
"Of course, there is more pressure on the English players," said Donovan, in an exclusive interview with Yahoo! Sports. "If we don't do well in the World Cup, people care for a little bit. But if England doesn't do well in the World Cup, it is absolutely devastating to their country, their families, to their people."
England and the U.S. meet in Rustenburg on June 12 for their opening match and one of the most anticipated games of the first round.
England is one of the favorites to lift the World Cup trophy, having swept through European qualifying with barely a blip under the guidance of Italian head coach Fabio Capello and behind the emergence of Rooney, the supremely talented Manchester United forward.
The Americans, meanwhile, are hopeful of a solid run into the knockout stage following a strong showing in last summer's World Cup tune-up event, the Confederations Cup, where it lost to Brazil 3-2 in the final. Algeria and Slovenia make up the rest of Group C, from which two teams will advance.
During a loan spell with Everton in the English Premier League earlier this year, Donovan saw first-hand the level of intensity surrounding the England national team, which stops the entire nation in its tracks every time it takes the field in a major tournament. England has won the World Cup once, on home soil in 1966, and its failure to reach the semifinal since 1990 is an ongoing sore point for fans and players alike.
Donovan and the U.S. team have the backing of their country, but nowhere near the same degree of scrutiny and risk of criticism as England's team. The Los Angeles Galaxy forward believes that environment allows the Americans to prepare for a summer in South Africa in a more relaxed and positive fashion. England, on the other hand, could be weighed down by the burden of expectations heading into the tournament.
"That is something they [England] live with," Donovan said. "I don't know if they look at it that way, but that is how I look at it."
England public and media attention often focuses on one key player. In 2002, newspaper readers were asked to pray upon a photograph of David Beckham's fractured foot in the hope that positive karma would make it heal faster. This time around, it is Rooney who finds his life and fitness being dissected.
The 24-year-old Rooney has blossomed into a global superstar, but he has caused some nervous moments in his homeland by picking up untimely injuries to his ankle and groin.
Donovan believes the exertions of a full season of EPL and Champions League action may have exacted a steep price on Rooney – which could work to the USA's advantage.
"Rooney is a top player," said Donovan, who was speaking at an event promoting EA Sports 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa video game. "In my opinion, he is one of the best players in the world right now.
"But the other part of it is that he has played a lot of games and he is tired. He is probably worn out. Injuries are a part of that. Things happen when players are tired. When they just keep adding games to the schedule, it makes it difficult.
"Anytime you come into a World Cup, because of the timing of it, big players who play a lot of games in Europe are coming right at the end of their season, so it is always an interesting dynamic how to balance that."