International anarchy

Barcelona's Lionel Messi has been in terrific form as usual.-AP

In a cataclysmic result, world champions Spain were thrashed 4-0 in Portugal. So on the face of it, Portugal should be a dominating force in European and world football now. But that can't be true, considering their poor World Cup performance.

A depleted England team goes down 2-1 at Wembley to a far superior France, the score being a travesty of the game. Yet on the same evening in another friendly, there's a far more cataclysmic result for world champions Spain, thrashed 4-0 in Portugal. So on the face of it the two dominant European teams of the moment would be Portugal and France. But hang on a moment, in the South African World Cup, Portugal's presence was never felt at all, while the French disgraced themselves both on and off the field.

And while the inept performance of the England team can largely be ascribed to its lack of seasoned stars, there is no such excuse to be made for the debacle of Spain who were pretty well at full strength. And gave away two of the four goals to the Portuguese striker Postiga who, though he headed an impressive and somewhat unexpected goal against England in Lisbon, in the European Championship finals of 2004, had previously been discarded by Tottenham Hotspur, having failed to make any kind of impact in London.

As for France, you might say that under the new regime of Laurent Blanc they have risen triumphantly if belatedly from the ashes. And what ashes! They sent to South Africa a squad under a largely discredited manager in Raymond Domenech. True, thanks not least to the brilliance of Zinedine Zidane, with whom at one point he seemed inexplicably to have fallen out, he had guided the team, if that be the word, to the World Cup Final. But at the European Championship finals two years later everything had gone awry, his tactical mistakes seemed absurd, and it was to general amazement in French football that he was confirmed as World Cup manager in South Africa.

There, predictably enough, everything went wrong. In the first instance, it seemed bizarre that France had excluded such lively young talents as Benzema and Nasri, both of whom shone at Wembley. Some in South Africa were recalcitrant and rebellious to a degree. Things well and truly fell apart after a shocking obscene outburst at half-time in the dressing room by that maverick of French soccer, Nicolas Anelka, who asked to fill a different role in the second half, swore horribly at Domenech, who was ready to forgive him, were Anelka to apologise, but there was never a hope of that. Anelka was sent home and the rest of the team promptly rebelled, at one point refusing to train. Out of the tournament the team promptly and ignominiously went, and Laurent Blanc, already lined up to succeed the hapless and eccentric Domenech, duly took over: and sacked almost the whole squad.

One of the few who remained was the young midfielder Yoann Gourcuff, who'd made exceptional progress in French football after an uneasy spell at Milan. During the World Cup, he'd inexplicably become a target for the hostility of older players such as the Bayern Munich winger, Franck Ribery. Yet lo and behold, Ribery, after missing months of the season through injury, has just returned to the Bayern Munich team with great success, scoring twice in the easy European Cup conquest of Basel in Munich, and coming as he usually does off the pitch to embrace his brother, leaning from the stand to celebrate one of the goals. In form, there is no doubt of his efficacy and talents and if Blanc is prepared to let World Cup bygones be bygones, he would still further strengthen a much improved team. While the form both of Nasri and Benzema for their respective clubs makes it more mysterious and perverse than ever that both should have been excluded by Domenech from his South African squad.

I watched Nasri, in effervescent form, score two memorable goals at the Emirates for Arsenal against Fulham, each a solo of the highest quality, especially the second, when he spun past a couple of defenders, went by the Fulham keeper Mark Schwarzer in turn, then turned full circle to put the ball into the empty goal. Benzema, previously neglected at Real, scored a fine Euro hat-trick against Auxerre.

As for England there are now rumours that Fabio Capello, whose possible defection to Inter scared the feeble FA into deleting the contractual clause which could have allowed them to jettison him after the World Cup, might be wanted by Inter and the FA even let him go, now that the Milanese team has floundered under the aegis of Rafa Benitez. True, a host of injuries has weakened the team which went down weakly in Germany in its last qualifying Euro match. But it was never clear to me why Inter wanted Benitez in the first place, after a catastrophic season with Liverpool. So many misguided transfers, both in and out, not least that of Alonso, allowed to leave for Real Madrid, and the purchase for a vast sum of Spurs' attacker Robbie Keane, only to sell him back to White Hart Lane at a loss.

Capello, soldiering on, still inspires scant confidence. True the team he put out against France was seriously weakened. Yet it was bizarre that in the previous international at Wembley he had used, admittedly as a sub, the veteran Bolton striker, Kevin Davies, as centre forward. Only to drop him from, the squad to meet France, preferring Cardiff's Jay Bothroyd, now 28, and once a promising Arsenal youngster, who fell out with the club, now a frequent goal scorer, but only in the so called Championship. He, too came on as a sub and had little time to contribute.

Jack Wilshere, unquestionably one of the salient young English talents of the moment, admittedly wasn't fit to play versus France. But for the previous international Capello refused to let him play for the England under-21 team, then kept him on the bench at Wembley the whole game!

With Lionel Messi in such dazzling form for Barcelona, Argentina is probably as good as anybody at the moment, while Brazil, under new management, are more adventurous, but have still to find their way. This, however, is a period of transition, in which, perhaps, we shouldn't put too great an emphasis even on the collapse of the World Cup holders Spain in Portugal. If Arsenal's Arsene Wenger had his way there wouldn't be any friendly internationals anyway and he after all is a Frenchman!