The European picture

WE now at least know 11 of the teams which will contest in June and July, in Portugal, the European Championship.


WE now at least know 11 of the teams which will contest in June and July, in Portugal, the European Championship. Favourites? Very hard to say, not least as one of the obvious claimants, namely Spain, failed to win their group and must therefore play off for a place but it's hard to see them being out of the money. With such stars as Raul, Puyol and Etxberria to call upon, they should make a substantial challenge in Portugal though I don't see them as eventual winners. The Dutch must surely be there, challenging, too, even if they did lose 3-1 away to the Czechs, who won the group and will certainly have high hopes. After all they did reach the European Final in 1996 and went down only to a "golden goal" by Oliver Bierhoff for Germany.

Rio Ferdinand... forgetting a drug test. -- Pic.AP-

Given their abundance of famed strikers — Patrick Kluivert, Roy Makaay, Pierre Van Hooijdonk, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink — plus such up and coming young stars as Van der Meyde and Van der Vart, with Edgar "Pit Bull" Davids snapping in midfield, it was hard to see them being discomfited by Scotland, a very modest team which has limped its way into the play-offs. But great future things can surely be expected for the young, blond right flanker, Darren Fletcher, who scored their vital winner in Glasgow against Lithuania. He came on after 65 minutes as a substitute, but he surely deserves a regular place, just as he does with his club, Manchester United, who might surely have elevated him to first choice in his role at once when they sold David Beckham to Real Madrid.

Speaking of Beckham, who had a turbulent time in Istanbul, missing a penalty, being shamefully provoked by the Turkey and Aston Villa centre back Alpay and finally, foolishly, dedicating the successful qualification to Rio Ferdinand, he certainly went through a torrid time, though rightly praised for defusing a potentially disastrous situation when the England players crazily talked of boycotting the game in sympathy — surely quite undeserved — for Rio Ferdinand.

As you will surely know, Ferdinand was dropped from the squad for running out on a drug test at the Manchester United training ground. His excuse, for what it was worth, was that he "forgot," so anxious was he to buy furniture for his new home, but this hardly explained the fact that when he was sought for the test, his mobile phone was switched off.

The Football Association, under current international rules, had no alternative but to suspend him. Indeed in the world of athletics, avoiding a test is the same as failing one, which carries with it a two-year ban. Whipped up by the misguided Gary Neville, for me never more than a second-class international player, and inexcusably supported by Gordon Taylor, the head of the players union, the PFA, the footballers demanded that the FA back down. They didn't and the players did; as they were clearly bound to do from the outset if they valued their future careers. Even as it was, they had had the worst of both worlds, since their behaviour left an appalling impression on a far from sympathetic public. Dedicating their 0-0 draw to Ferdinand was in the circumstances a piece of rank bad taste and publicity.

And the fact was, in Istanbul, the absence of Ferdinand was a blessing in disguise. He had recently had a wretched game for United in Stuttgart when they lost their second European qualifier, giving away one of the two goals they let in. His place was taken with cool confidence by the young Chelsea centre half, John Terry, who had an excellent game. Indeed the Turkish attack, which could be so formidable, not least in the 2002 World Cup, was well and truly tamed. Though let us pass over the brawl in the tunnel, which took place at half-time, after Alpay had insulted and provoked Beckham.

So should England be among the favourites for the tournament? I don't think so; though at least it does look, at the time of writing, that the slippery Swede, Sven Goran Eriksson, widely expected to walk out to manage Chelsea, will stay till the end of the Euro finals. His behaviour over the players' threatened boycott was ambiguous to a degree. It was felt that he should have come out strongly on the side of the FA, but he seemed to be pandering to the players. All this too at a time of appalling scandal, with several footballers accused of raping a 17 year old girl in a central London hotel, another of raping a woman in Leeds.

Michael Owen wasn't playing in Istanbul which I'd say deprives England of 40% of their effectiveness and they still haven't got a real playmaker in midfield. Paul Scholes, who simply cannot score for England, comes nearest to that, but Eriksson continues to turn his face away from Joe Cole — who for goodness' sake finds it hard enough to get a starting spot in the Chelsea team — and Nicky Butt will never be more than an enforcer in midfield. A relief however to see Ashley Cole playing with much more discipline and positional sense at left back, after so many blunders.

Italy, after a dire beginning, a draw at home with Yugoslavia as they then were, defeat in Cardiff against Wales, have come back strongly and I think we must count them among the European favourites. After all they ran France, the winners on that golden goal, very close indeed in the last European final. Alex Del Piero, who missed those two fine chances late in the game and became for a while the most unpopular person in Italy, is right back in his elusive, inventive form now, and Francesco Totti, dazzling at the start of the season, then injured, then somewhat less impressive, remains one of the world's best "three quarter" players operating just behind the midfield. The pairing of Pippo Inzaghi and Bobo Vieri, both 30, up front, looks formidable, provided Vieri can get over a sustained period of missing chances.

The French, who have had to play through the qualifiers where previous winners of the title have been exempt till the finals, have done so with impressive ease. The usual suspects, so to speak, are there. Thierry Henry has found the form he so strangely lost in the 2002 World Cup, Zinedine Zidane remains a footballer of enormous versatility and flair, and there is a clutch of gifted youngsters clamouring for places. It is well within the bounds of possibility that the fluent French will retain their title. Even if Fabien Barthez, that most unorthodox of keepers — bar Rene Higuita — appears to have passed his meridian.