A few twists and turns

Brazilian striker Ronaldo (third from right) shares a joke with team-mates (from left) Kaka, Juliano Belletti, Rivaldo, Juninho Pernambucano and Alex Alves during a training session. Though it may not have been a spectacular year for the Brazilians, they were adjudged as FIFA's top team of 2003. -- Pic. AFP-Brazilian striker Ronaldo (third from right) shares a joke with team-mates (from left) Kaka, Juliano Belletti, Rivaldo, Juninho Pernambucano and Alex Alves during a training session. Though it may not have been a spectacular year for the Brazilians, they were adjudged as FIFA's top team of 2003. -- Pic. AFP

Despite the dark aspects such as the death of a player on the field and the doping scandal, the spirit and passion of the game remained unabated, writes S. R. SURYANARAYAN.

THIS WAS not the year of the World Cup or the Olympics. Even regional events (like the Asian Games) are some distance away. But there were enough happenings not the least being the death of a Cameroon International Marc-Vivien Foe on the pitch in the Confederations Cup semi-final and the doping threat marring the number one sport.

For five-time World Cup winner Brazil, it may have been an indifferent year (2003) considering its exalted status what with four defeats (twice against Mexico) marring its eight win and five draw record of the year. But overall the balance was enough for it to be adjudged the FIFA `Top team of 2003,' the champion country winning the honour for the eighth time in 11 years. More laurels are in store if happenings in Dubai, where the FIFA World youth championship, are any indication. Brazil after eliminating arch-rival and holder Argentina and Spain, which ousted Colombia decide the title, a repeat of the under-17 World Cup, but will the result be the same? Brazil had the final say in Finland.

Europe was the centre of action with the Euro 2004 just months away and all the qualifiers determined through a series of matches throughout the continent. National spirit and passion that overflowed were next only to the World Cup. The tension, struggle and the triumph formed the essential features of the European saga involving 50 countries that finally produced 16 contenders who will battle it out for the honours coming June in Portugal.

Even if style and magic in the sport rests with the Latin Americans, Europe is the continent where the majority of the top football nations come from and where some of the fiercest battles on the green turf are still held. Euro 2004 qualifiers produced enough drama some twists and turns too. A significant aspect of the initial flow of results that saw 11 countries qualify as the leaders of as many Groups, was the run of France, the defending champion. After its unceremonious exit in Korea-Japan 2002 World Cup, where injuries plagued the classy Zinedine Zidane, critics had begun to see the slide of this world power.

Much of that was pushed to the background with France inching back to its best. True Slovenia, Israel, Cyprus and Malta, the teams in its group could not have come in its way of topping them all but still to have stormed in to the final phase with an all-win record, it was a commanding show. More so when forces like Italy, England, Spain and Germany dropped points to lesser-known teams. Spain in fact made its place through a play-off after it finished runner-up in its group, which had Greece, Ukraine, Armenia and Northern Ireland. Greece had topped the group. France rightly then is being considered favourite to retain the title. Nothing can be more sweeter for new Coach Jacques Santini, the ex-Lyon chief, who took over a battered bunch from Roger Lemerre in the aftermath of the World Cup catastrophe.

Cameroon's Marc-Vivien Foe's death during the Confederations Cup cast a pall of gloom on the football world. — Pic. AP-

Switching to the more favoured 4-4-2 pattern, Santini was to bring the adjustments to put France on the road to recovery. Thierry Henry, easily one of Europe's most feared strikers proved his worth in his preferred Central zone, scoring 10 international goals last season. William Gallas is a newcomer who showed his solidity in the defence alongside experienced Marcel Desailly. He had praise for Alain Boumsong, Olivier Kapo and Phillippe Mexes. Jerome Rothen showed his prowess in sending crosses. Benoit Pedretti, Claude Makelele and Sidney Gavou gave the coach enough to cheer. What Santini still loves to have is a cover for the incomparable Zidane and more match action for Fabien Barthez. It is this that has fired the imagination of France and his fans fervently wish that Zizou remained in full fitness for the important assignments in Portugal.

Apart from host Portugal, the teams which qualified as group toppers, are France, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland. The five teams that joined thereafter following play-offs were Croatia, Spain, Latvia, Netherlands and Russia. If England's play always attracted notice thanks to David Beckham, a name that symbolised all charm and admiration in football then Latvia's entry into the elite tourney is history. Ever since the Korea-Japan World Cup, Beckham's name has soared in popularity in the Asian continent, even if England's stock did not rise as high in the World Cup. His $30 million transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid was a subject of debate by fans for weeks together. His tour of Asia, in particular Japan and China produced reactions that bordered on the sensation. Not since the days of Maradona has a player risen this high in the public eye and for two reasons — his debonair looks and his classy play.

As always England's fortunes revolve around him. In the Euro qualifiers it was no different. With able support from Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes in addition to the outstanding newcomer Wayne Rooney, Beckham could make England a force that it is. In particular in the final deciding match against Turkey in Istanbul there was tension but a professional approach saw the team get the one point against Turkey.

For all its wonderful display in the 2002 World Cup when it reached the semi-finals, Turkey failed to get a goal which would put it ahead of England. There is plenty to look forward to for Coach Seven Goran Eriksson and there is lot more to come from Beckham. But first English football had to face the scandal of high profile dope testing row. International Rio Ferdinand of Manchester United, at 30 million pounds the world's most expensive defender faced a ban from the game for failing to take a scheduled doping test.

On to the qualifiers and England in the same group as holder France is what queers the pitch for Euro 2004. The meet of the two will be like a `Derby race', according to the French Coach Santini. There is much more in store in Euro, the rivalry between Germany and Denmark, the show of host Portugal known for its exquisite talents like Luis Figo, Rui Costa and new sensation, Christiano Ronaldo, an under-21 star. Can they change the tide after the poor World Cup show and disappointing fall in the 2000 Euro semi-finals.

One of the surprises of the final round was Latvia beating Sweden in Stockholm. Maris Verpakovskis was the hero. Verpakovskis was again the man to deliver the knock out punch on Turkey in the play off. Latvia needed a draw in the away match after having a 1-0 advantage from the home encounter. Clubbed with Germany, Netherlands and Czech Republic can Latvia produce the magic is the question.

In the month of June, Paris was in the news for the Confederations Cup which France, the reigning champion was hosting. The tournament itself came in for much flak, many players considering this as an unwanted strain particularly in the midst of the European league. Not surprisingly some key players were missing, notably Zinedine Zidane for France. But that did not come in the way of France extending lease over the trophy. Thierry Henry was the hero, the tournament's golden ball winner, and the man who delivered a golden goal in the final to douse whatever hopes that remained in the African champion, Cameroon.

Indeed Cameroon players had taken the field with a heavy heart after the death of their colleague Marc-Vivien Foe on the field in the semi-final against Colombia. The 28-year-old player collapsed about 20 minutes before end of the match through what later was explained was heart ailment (abnormally enlarged left ventricle). Ironically only minutes before that an effort was made to substitute him but the great warrior refused it, reportedly stating that he wanted to ensure Cameroon was in the final!

Eight teams had taken part in the Paris tournament. Apart from France and Cameroon the others were Colombia, Japan, New Zealand, Turkey, Brazil and U.S. If France and Cameroon headed the two groups without losing a match each then the shock was Brazil's exit at the hands of Turkey at the group league stage. The two countries had exhibited a wonderful rivalry in the World Cup when the two meetings went in Brazil's favour. What better way to avenge then than to keep Brazil out, a 2-2 draw was all that Turkey needed to achieve that in a match in which Adriano made the first strike for Brazil and Ronaldinho an exit through two yellow card punishments. Turkey thus qualified for the semi-finals where France had the last laugh. Cameroon and Colombia met in the other calamity-filled semi-final.

The year also witnessed the mini-World Cup (Under-17) in Finland or the future stars of the game. Unprecedented was also the introduction of artificial turf, at least ten matches including the final were played on this surface at Toolo Stadium in Helsinki. The feedback by the FIFA Technical study team was positive and this could encourage more use of artificial turfs in future competitions. Another surprise was that all the match officials were making their debut and this FIFA Referees Committee viewed it as `coming of age of tomorrow's match officials'.

East Bengal's victory in the ASEAN club championship was a bright spot from India's point of view. -- Pic. AFP-

As for the competition, once again Brazil showcased its vast reservoir of talent by winning the crown for the third time an unprecedented honour. Spain's Cesc was the best player of the tournament but he could do little against the combined assault of Brazil which lifted the cup through an early goal by Leonardo. Brazil had earlier won the title in 1997 and 1999. Age-related problems particularly in Asia and Africa used to be a menace in this tournament but an indication that stringent tests would be conducted in Finland proved a deterrent.

Significantly for the first time the six teams representing Asia and Africa, lost out in the first round. At the quarter-final stage the CONCACAF representative was wiped out but high praise was heard of the 14-year-old U.S. prodigy, Freddy Adu, the team spirit of Costa Rica and the polished display of the Mexicans. Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and Spain formed the last four contenders. Brazil and Spain moved ahead and the rest is history.

The women's World Cup was another important fixture gone through in the year in the U.S. Germany won the title for the first time in what was an all-European affair with Sweden being the other finalist. A golden goal by substitue Nia Knenzer settled the issue for Germany after the teams were locked 1-1 at regulation time. Even as established names like Bettina Wiegmann (Germany) and Mia Hamm (U.S.) faded out, new stars emerged like Birgit Prinz (Germany), who was the tournament's top scorer. Germany had beaten the reigning champion U.S. in the semi-finals while Sweden had accounted for Canada. And for a change there were no contenders from Latin America!

Indian football settings remained more or less the same despite a FIFA-AFC inspired conference in New Delhi outlining the areas that need to be addressed for uplifting the game in the country. During the year a few results here and there kept the spirits high. Star player Bhaichung Bhutia inspired a famous victory for his club, East Bengal, the reigning national league champion, in the ASEAN club championship in Jakarta in July. East Bengal was invited and overcame all odds to beat Thailand's top team BEC Tero Sasana 3-1 in the final. No Indian club had till then won any tournament abroad.

Inspired by this the junior Indian team put up a plucky show in the prestigious Milk Cup tournament in Ireland before landing a title — the M.M. trophy Ian Rush international Youth tournament — beating junior Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro in the final. Later in the year in a much-diluted Afro-Asian Games competition, India finished next best to an Under-20 Uzbekistan side. For which it owes much to veteran I.M. Vijayan, the top scorer, who announced his retirement from International football at the end of the tournament. For the good show, English Coach Stephen Constantine of the national team was declared the AFC Coach of the month.