Championship blues

Greece's triumph in Portugal, however romantic, merely confirmed the impression that football, in inverse ratio to the insane sums of money poured out to its chief practitioners, has been going downhill for years, writes BRIAN GLANVILLE.

THE Greeks had a word for it, goes the old saying and in this case with all due deference the word has to be: mediocrity. All credit to a remarkable, unfancied Greek team, splendidly fit, resilient in defence, quick on the breakaway, supremely well coached and organised by the German Otto Rehhagel. But the team's triumph in Portugal, however romantic, merely confirmed the impression that football, in inverse ratio to the insane sums of money poured out to its chief practitioners, has been going downhill for years. So a second rate World Cup is followed in the recent season by an equally unimpressive European Champions Cup and now by a European Championship in which most of the stars, far from shining, were flickering into obscurity.

Greece manager Otto Rehhagel (right) with the team captain and Player of the Championship, Theodoros Zagorakis, at the Athens airport, after the triumphant campaign in Euro 2004. Rehhagel with his shrewd tactics put other far better paid managers to shame, says the author. — Pic. AP-

Should the Czechs ideally have won the title? You could argue that case. Would they have lost to the Greeks in the semi-final had Pavel Nedved, the fulcrum of their team, not been so sadly and unluckily injured, and forced off the field, early in the match? But then they could blame only themselves for the dismal second half miss by the towering Jan Koller, out through with only the Greek 'keeper to beat in an incisive one-two with Milan Baros.

Rehhagel, with his shrewd tactics, put other far better paid managers to shame. Big Phil Scolari rode his luck with Brazil to survive against England — so unimaginatively managed by Sven Goran Eriksson — beating in the final a German team with no right to be there at all; and even then, obliged to play without its star turn, the suspended Michael Ballack. The form of Ballack, in parenthesis, and the young, blond ubiquitous attacker Bastian Schweinsteiger were just about all the Germans had to console them in the 2004 tournament. No wonder Rudi Voller resigned. Who can now hope to do any better with such a pitiful dearth of talent?

It's been argued that the poor quality of the tournament was attributable to sheer weariness. While I'd be the first to concede that far too much football is played by leading clubs and players, trapped in a vicious circle of excessive salaries and the consequent need to play on and on, I don't buy this as an excuse. For better or for worse, European countries have always had to play the finals of the two major competitions at the end of their seasons. One of the great qualities of Enzo Bearzot, when manager of Italy, with whom he won the World Cup in 1982, was his ability to "disintoxicate" his players, as he put it, after the trials and tribulations of the Italian Series A.

Those critics who insist that European clubs play far too much football tend to be reminded that South American clubs play even more. Though when it comes to the most successful World Cup team of all, Brazil, the fact is that most of the players are operating in Europe.

The pitiful collapse of France was one of the features of the Championship. Their long record of success since their failure in the 2002 World Cup was proved to be a snare and delusion, in retrospect not much more than a sustained exercise in rabbit killing. Why absolve Zinedine Zidane's fading displays, as some have tried to do, on the grounds of exhaustion, any more than you can do the same for the unhappy David Beckham, his club colleague, at least for the moment, at Real Madrid? I saw France go out not with a bang but with a whimper to the Greeks and the goal they gave away to lose said it all. Theodors Zagorakis, who made little impact when playing in England, and is no natural winger, moved out to the flank and went past the hapless Bixente Lizarazu as if he were Garrincha, then crossing the ball for Charisteas to head in. A striker, be it noted, who got on the field last season for Werder Bremen just seven times!

Yet how well the Greeks exploited that right flank, their winning goals from Dellas and Charisteas in the semi-final and final both coming from dead ball kicks out there; with the collusion of inept defending, first by the Czechs, then by the Portuguese. As for France, the sole excuse they could put forward for their abject performance against Greece was the absence of Patrick Vieira from midfield. But what sort of a manager took the daft risk of using the plainly obsolescent Marcel Desailly in central defence against the Croatians; who joyfully exploited his failings when Prso scored their second goal.

The French should have lost that game and almost did at the death. They should also have lost against England who committed virtual suicide. Beckham missed a penalty a recurring theme, and Steve Gerrard, with that inept back pass, paved the way to the penalty with which Zidane won the match for France. For much of the game against Switzerland, moreover, the Swiss gave the French a difficult time of it, the 18-year-old Johan Vonlanthen, younger even than Wayne Rooney, coolly taking his goal. As for Rooney himself, I still wonder whether Portugal would have prevailed against England in Lisbon had he not been hurt so early in the game.

For Rooney does a great deal more than score spectacular goals. Often dropping into midfield, he galvanises his team as he did on his debut against Turkey, at Sunderland. His departure was a colossal psychological blow to England and a boost to the Portuguese. But Eriksson, on that hyperbolic �4 million a year, stands accused of inadequacy as he was in the last World Cup. Quite apart from his unimaginative tactics against the Portuguese, he was seriously at fault for not protecting Beckham and Gerrard from plainly unendurable pressures.

It was absurd to allow the players access to their wives when the situation between Beckham and relatively Posh Spice was known to be so tense. Reports have it that he was devastated by her recriminations. The morality of the situation is no business of mine. The implications for Beckham's form should have concerned Eriksson. And why did he allow the new Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, to visit Gerrard and, in the player's own admission, to throw him into confusion over his future at the club? Might that account for the colossal error against France and Gerrard's early departure from the match against Portugal?

Italy? My old friend Giovanni Trapattoni should never have been confirmed after the fiasco of 2002. Francesco Totti didn't help, spitting his way out of the tournament. But where now are the creative successors to Gianni Rivera and Giancarlo Antognoni.