If this glorious summer of sport was going to come to an unsatisfactory end, then it was always a safe bet that the England football team would be charged with the job of providing the anticlimax. On Tuesday night, in the first home fixture of a new World Cup qualifying campaign, they fumbled and bumbled to a draw that will have made no one optimistic about their chances of distinguishing themselves in Brazil in two years' time.
The vast empty spaces in the stands of the new Wembley spoke of a nation no longer in thrall to its football team. On the south side, the complete upper tier had been left vacant. The dress circle, where the prawn-sandwich brigade congregate, was thinly populated, and many of the high-yield corporate hospitality boxes were completely empty. Behind the goals there were just about enough fans to hold up the placards making a cross of St George during the national anthem.
An attendance of 70,000 had been promised, and a gate of 68,102 was officially declared, but the stadium looked barely half full. The contrast with recent events a few miles to the east could hardly have been more marked.
Last week 80,000 people were turning up for a morning session of Paralympic track and field events. The medal winners presented to the Wembley crowd at half-time would have noted the difference between the uncertain mood of the football crowd, swinging between fervour and frustration, and the warmth and generosity of those who packed the Olympic Stadium.
It is said that only 918 fans travelled to Chisinau last week for the opening Group H match against Moldova, and even that seemed, on first-hand visual evidence, to be a bit of an exaggeration. What should concern the Football Association is that those travelling fans are ageing fast, most of them now in their forties and fifties. They have been doing this since they were young men, and their stock is not being replenished.
A new regime has not yet succeeded in rekindling enthusiasm. This is hardly Roy Hodgson's fault. Decades of false dawns have eroded the supporters' goodwill and they are going to need serious proof of the imminence of great deeds if they are to reinvest their faith in the team.
A dozen of Hodgson's bigger names were missing on Tuesday night and their understudies did little to justify the tentative praise they received after last week's promising start. They began the match as if tranquillised, allowing the visitors to run through and around them almost at will, and making a succession of defensive errors in dangerous positions.
When England got the ball in the net, after 10 minutes, it was the work of Jermain Defoe, who took a clever through-ball from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, made ground in the inside-left channel and lashed a shot inside the near post. But he had fended off Andriy Yarmolenko with his arm, and the effort was disallowed.
When three good chances fell to England later in the half it was Tom Cleverley who missed them all. Defoe, you felt, might have converted each of them. He is, after all, England's top scorer over the past four seasons, with nine goals to Frank Lampard's eight, six each for Peter Crouch and Ashley Young, and five apiece for Rooney and Gerrard.
And yet his is not a name that has fans scrambling for tickets. Neither with club nor country has he made himself a fixture, despite expectations that he would emerge as the natural heir to Michael Owen. At the age of 29 he has become philosophical about his plight as a striker of last resort.
Hodgson kept faith with him on Tuesday night, however, and it was the young men, Cleverley and Oxlade-Chamberlain, who gave way to two natural strikers, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge, as England strove for the equaliser. With three out-and-out forwards on the pitch, not much in the way of tactical coherence was in evidence. It was all a long way from the structured football that is Hodgson's stock in trade, and even the late penalty with which Lampard secured a point is unlikely to encourage a bigger attendance for the visit of San Marino next month.
The match was going into added time when the news came that Steven Gerrard had been named man of the match. Then someone realised that he had been sent off two minutes earlier, and a swift adjustment was made to transfer the award to Lampard. It beggared belief that anyone could have deemed either of them worthy of any sort of honour after such a performance.
Had there been an award for the opposite of the man of the match, then Gerrard might have deserved it. Once upon a time it would have been unthinkable for an England captain to be sent off, but he might have been dismissed for catching Ruslan Rotan with a flailing arm half an hour before receiving a second yellow card for a late challenge on Denys Garmash. Both acts were irresponsible.
The only possible candidate for an individual award for excellence was surely Evhen Konoplyanka, the 22-year-old No 10 from Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, who gave Ukraine the lead with a sumptuous goal and showed many other inventive touches. But Konoplyanka, of course, is not English, or a celebrity, and therefore not deemed worthy of recognition in the home of football.
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image: © geetarchurchy