Three weeks ago, England was hailed as a genuine challenger to Brazil for the World Cup and Sven-Goran Eriksson's unbeaten record in qualifying games showed no sign of ending. Now the fans are calling for his head and he's under pressure to resign.
A 4-1 loss to Denmark in a friendly on Aug. 17 -- England's heaviest defeat in 25 years -- was bad enough. Wednesday's 1-0 defeat by Northern Ireland was embarrassing. Even captain David Beckham said so.
Eriksson's credibility has gone to an all-time low so far as England fans are concerned. For the first time in his four-year reign as coach, some at Windsor Park called for him to go and, at a news conference after the loss to Northern Ireland's journeymen, the subject of resignation was raised.
"I'm not going to resign," said Eriksson, as England slipped to five points behind Group 6 leader Poland, which beat Wales 1-0.
"I am going to try and make it right in October -- win two games and we've qualified. We still have it in our hands and it's up to us in October to make the six points. I'm very sorry and disappointed as the players are, sorry for the team, sorry for the three points we lost, sorry for the fans, who traveled here paying a lot of money," he said.
Eriksson said it was "understandable" for the fans to call for him to quit. "If you lose against Northern Ireland, I can't argue with that."
Beckham admitted the result was not acceptable.
"I think some strong words have been said by the manager, by [assistant] Steve McClaren and the lads have taken it," the England captain said. "Tonight it has been a bit of an embarrassment for the lads. Tonight hurts more than any night probably."
Instead of taking another big step toward the World Cup, England is virtually standing still at a time when the other big contenders are moving forward.
While a typically top quality Thierry Henry strike put France back on course for the finals in a 1-0 victory over Ireland, a Luca Toni hat-trick pushed Italy closer with a 4-1 victory at Belarus. Two Jan Polak strikes helped the Czech Republic beat Armenia 4-1, and group rival the Netherlands outplayed Andorra 4-0 with Ruud van Nistelrooy scoring twice.
Yet no more European teams managed to join the eight who have already qualified to join host Germany -- Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine, Japan, South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US.
With just two rounds of games to go, there will be a late scramble for the other European spots, with eight group winners and the best two runners-up qualifying, and the other six going into playoffs.
The tightest competition is in Group 4 with Switzerland winning 3-1 at Cyprus and Israel beating the Faeroe Islands 2-0 to stay in contention. That put pressure on Ireland and France in Dublin, and Henry's wonder strike gave the French a 1-0 victory which dropped the Irish to fourth.
Portugal stayed five points clear after a 0-0 draw with Russia in Moscow and, with rivals Slovakia and Russia still to play each other, is within touching distance of the finals.
Atletico Madrid striker Mateja Kezman scored on his home ground for Serbia and Montenegro to cancel out a strike for Spain by Real Madrid's Raul Gonzalez in a 1-1 draw. The result meant Bosnia-Herzegovina made up ground in third place after a 1-0 victory at Lithuania.
One of soccer's minnows, Malta, drew 1-1 with group leader Croatia, which placed third at the World Cup as recently as 1998. That enabled Sweden to go top by winning 1-0 at Hungary.