Gung-ho Europe, WARTS AND ALL


IN ALMOST a Dickensian manner, the European World Cup qualifiers held together the idea that France and England are, for all the outward and inward dissimilarities, conjoined twins. For managers Raymond Domenech and Sven-Goran Eriksson, the year-long battle to enter Germany 2006 encapsulated the best of times and the worst of times, the age of wisdom and of foolishness, the season of light and of darkness, the epoch of belief and of incredulity. Finally, after a series of edgy draws, barely scraped out wins, an embarrassing loss to Northern Ireland (in England's case), horror man management with respect to celebrities, and terrible experimentations with formations, the two managers hit upon enlightenment in the home stretch of the qualifiers.

The lucky factor for both France and England was that they had destiny in their own hands in their mission to top the group and gain automatic qualification when the last round of matches started earlier this month. France needed to score three more goals in its last match against Cyprus than what eventual group runner-up Switzerland scored against Republic of Ireland in a match that took place at the same time. With one eye on the goalless draw in Dublin, `Les Blues' scored four in the Stade de France, and football lovers all over the world licked their lips in anticipation of witnessing a last hurrah by the great Zinedine Zidane in Germany.

Zidane returned from international retirement for France's last four matches to play in the centre just behind the lone striker — Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet or Djibril Cisse depending on who was available — and as the apex of the 4-5-1 midfield pyramid formation instituted by Domenech. He had three exceptionally talented youngsters playing just behind him in central and marginally wide positions who are expected to make a difference in Germany — wingers Florent Malouda and Ludovic Giuly and central midfielder Vikash Dhorasoo of Mauritian-Indian descent. In the World Cup, if both Henry and Trezeguet are fit, Zidane is likely to move deeper with Henry likely to play just behind the Juventus striker.

England went into its penultimate encounter against Austria knowing that only a win in the match and another win against group leaders Poland in the last match would ensure it a berth in Germany. The team's confidence prior to the match had dipped to a new low after a humiliating 0-1 away loss to Northern Ireland — then ranked all of 120 in the FIFA world rankings — in the previous fixture in September. An openly remonstrating Wayne Rooney, speculations of grumbling by Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard about the midfield diamond formation tried out for the Northern Ireland match and the game against Wales that preceded it, and the media's attack on the manager's on and off field favouritism of captain David Beckham were, to put it mildly, some of the things in the team's mind before the Austria match.

Honestly, England need not have worried. For, even if England drew on the night it could have survived in the competition if neighbours Netherlands defeated Euro 2004 semifinalists Czech Republic — without influential playmaker Pavel Nedved in the qualifiers but nevertheless a force to reckon with given the attacking form displayed by strikers Jan Koller and Milan Baros — played at the same time as the England-Austria tie. Beckham and co., perhaps, would not even have been daunted by the fact that the venue of the other match was Prague. For, so sublime, convincing and attacking has Marco van Basten's Netherlands been right through the qualifiers that Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Perreira had already pencilled the team down as one of the leading challengers for next summer in early March this year, midway into the qualifiers.

Playing out of their skins all year in an attacking 4-3-3 formation, the Dutch did not even feel the effect of ace striker and their top scorer in the qualifier, Ruud van Niestelrooy, having a poor match. Thanks to their attacking men in wide positions, Rafael van der Vaart and super winger Arjen Robben, who, as they say on the streets of Amsterdam, is at least two times better than the great winger of `the golden generation' Marc Overmars. The duo ran circles around the Czech full-backs and the result was an easy 2-0 win.

In the World Cup, if both Henry and Trezeguet are fit, Zidane is likely to move deeper with Henry likely to play just behind Trezeguet.-AP

Van Basten has taken some radical decisions in the qualifiers such as not picking out of form Valencia striker Patrick Kluivert, the all-time leading scorer for his country, and temperamental and moody Juventus midfielder Clarence Seedorf. He has also read the riot act in the middle of the campaign to Barcelona midfielder Mark van Bommel for lack of effort and commitment. Edgar Davids and Phillip Cocu, though, are part of his midfield plans for Germany, and they will be able foils in Germany to younger names such as Wesley Sneijder and Denny Landzaat, who are brimming with talent and waiting to play in their first World Cup in the event of Netherlands not having qualified for the 2002 finals in South Korea and Japan.

Upfront, in the centre, Van Niestelrooy has good back up in the bench from youngsters Robin Van Persie, Dirk Kuijt and Romeo Castelen and experienced Bayern Munich striker Roy Makaay. Cocu can play in an attacking wide position as well in the event of injuries to either Robben or Van der Vaart, who plays as an attacking central midfielder for his club SV Hamburg. The major area of concern for the mercurial former striker and now national coach is the central defence. Whether or not Van Basten can persuade veteran Jaap Stam to come out of international retirement in Germany in the months to come would be crucial for the Netherlands.

The other leading European challenger, going by the form in the qualifiers, is the colonial `other' of world champions Brazil and it has a cache of riches in its defence. Portugal has, in Jorge Andrade and Ricardo Carvalho, the best central defenders in the world along with Italy and it has two good full-backs in Paulo Ferreira and Nuno Valente. In contrast to Italy, this department is not even the main strength of the nation — which was unlucky to lose the final of Euro 2004 to an ultra defensive Greece — coached by a man who won the 2002 World Cup with Brazil.

Despite persisting with a formation in the qualifiers that has just one attacking man upfront in the centre, Luiz Felipe Scolari has ensured that his hit man Pauleta — who finished as the top scorer in the World Cup qualifiers with 11 goals and who in the process moved ahead of the great Eusebio as Portugal's all-time leading scorer — has plenty of roaming support just behind him in the centre as well as in marginally wide positions. The trio that plays behind — Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco — will give sleepless nights to any defence. Scolari has, in Maniche and Costinha, an excellent playmaking midfielder and a good defensive one. The qualifiers were, literally, a stroll in the park for Portugal, who played 4-5-1 throughout and who are likely to employ it to good effect in Germany.

Ukraine was the third attacking force that topped its group in the qualifiers, a trend that is a welcome change from the catastrophe of Euro 2004 when Greece employed ultra defensive tactics and formations to win the tournament. Riding on Andriy Shevchenko, arguably the most complete forward in the world today with Thierry Henry a close second, Ukraine put together a string of victories in a tough group that included European champions Greece, World Cup number three Turkey, and the dangerous Denmark, which trounced England in a friendly in Copenhagen in August. Shevchenko had Andrei Vorobey and Andrei Voronin for support in a three-man attack that recorded memorable away wins such as the 3-0 drubbing of Turkey in Istanbul and the 1-0 win over Greece in Athens.

Lovers of the game will be hoping that the European challenge in Germany is spearheaded by the Netherlands, Portugal and Ukraine, with an in-form England and France thrown in so that over the course of a month next summer the world is captivated by some exceptionally attacking football. As was seen in the qualifiers, Italy might be a serious contender in Germany but backing the `Azzuri' is inversely proportional to a commitment to entertaining and attacking play just as it is believed to be directly proportional to the worship of male beauty. After the first round catastrophe in Euro 2004, Italy brought in coach Marcello Lippi, who chose to build his campaign centred on his amazing back four, including the world's best central defending duo of Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro, and the brilliant defensive screen Andrea Pirlo, also called the king of counter attacks for his smooth tackling skills and vision to follow it up with deep and penetrative passes into the rival box. The solid Gianluca Zambrotta as full-back along with the young Fabio Grosso meant that the Italians had the best defence in the qualifiers, and probably in the World Cup as well along with Portugal and Argentina.

The roving terrier-like Gennaro Gattuso and the passing skills of Mauro Cameronesi in the midfield diamond were also key elements in Lippi's qualifying campaign, as was, believe it or not, a trident attack in which two strikers played upfront and one played just behind them as the apex of the pyramid. Cristian Vieri, Francesco Totti, the evergreen Alessandro Del Pierro and youngsters Alberto Gilardino and Luca Toni gave Italy the right mix of youth and experience in attack but, unsurprisingly, the number of goals scored or chances created did not tally with the trident formation, whose members spent huge quantities of time in the empty rival area licking their lips in anticipation of being at the end of a Pirlo-Gattuso masterminded counter attack.

World Cup underachievers Spain threatened to be just that, and were lucky to make it to the play-offs next month against Slovakia for a berth in Germany. Spain's group was topped by first-time entrant to the World Cup, Serbia-Montenegro.

The group saw two ties, home and away, between Serbia and political rivals Bosnia-Herzegovina, which witnessed some hostile clashes between rival supporters smarting under the Balkan civil war of the 1990s fought along ethnic lines and which resulted in the division of Yugoslavia.

It is evident that Bosnians and Serbians need to play a lot more in the decades to come so that the pent up bitterness of the past finds a safety valve through memorable events on a football field, just as the bitterness of Falklands found a release in two amazing goals of recent times, both by little men wearing number 10 shirts for their respective countries, the first in Mexico in 1986 and the second in France in 1998.