The European picture

Mario Gomez has been showing the sort of consistency which could make him one of the stars at the European Championships.

No, I am not going to join the sceptics who now fear the mood at the European Championships in Austria and Switzerland is going to be depressed.

Of course, at first glance there don’t appear too many grounds for optimism. Instead of a feeling of eager anticipation, the host teams are at present experiencing only disappointment and despondency.

Austria has once again lost an international friendly at home, this time in a most demoralising manner, throwing away a 3-0 lead to lose 4-3 to the Netherlands. Switzerland, meanwhile, was badly mauled in a 4-0 home drubbing by Germany, and has now lost four games in a row.

Yet, I know from experience just how quickly the mood can change. Two months before the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where I was president of the organising committee, there was a feeling of trepidation. The German team was completely outclassed 4-1 in Italy, and there was a good deal of whinging and moaning. A few weeks later the tournament turned out to be an enormous festival, with the German team playing a refreshingly attacking game, confounding the pessimists by reaching the semifinals.

A turnaround like this is something I hope for Switzerland and, of course, for Austria, a country which has been my home for decades. Austria should look on the positive side. In the match against the Netherlands, for most of the first-half Austria dominated the Dutch team which was missing the injured striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, but more crucially looking shaky in defence.

Of course, coach Marco van Basten was experimenting at the back as elsewhere in the team, which is perfectly usual in games at this stage before a major tournament. In March, 72 days before the start of the tournament, no coach is going to be revealing his hand.

For this reason, Germany was a surprise for me. Of all the tournament favourites, Germany in Basle was the most convincing of all, especially up front. I was particularly pleased to see Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski get goals as neither of them have been able to shine of late for Bayern Munich. Meanwhile, Stuttgart’s Mario Gomez was able to stake his claim to spearhead the attack by scoring twice and setting up the opening goal for Klose.

Gomez has been showing the sort of consistency which could make him one of the stars at the European Championships. There isn’t a German striker at the moment who can match his goal-scoring form, and I am sure he will soon be attracting the interest of Europe’s leading clubs.

Even if he stays on at Stuttgart after Euro 2008, the club knows it will be hard to keep him until the end of his contract in 2012. Spain could be a destination: Gomez’s father is Spanish and the player himself has long been a fan of Barcelona.

Germany must be seen as the favourite in Group B, but I would warn against underestimating any of the group opponents. Poland’s 3-0 defeat at home to the United States should not be taken too seriously. Its Dutch coach Leo Beenhakker has hardly been able to train with his players, and the lack of defensive cohesion was an obvious result. But Beenhakker, the old fox, already knows it will be a different Poland team which takes the field against Germany in Klagenfurt in the first group game.

Croatia, which drew 1-1 with Scotland, will also be a different proposition. Coach Slaven Bilic’s preparations were in disarray after two-thirds of his squad failed to arrive at the appointed place and time ahead of the match in Scotland. The coach complained that people back home expected the team to come up with results like Brazil with preparations like Andorra. At least he’d calmed down after the match when his team showed it could not only combine well with the ball but also fight hard for it.

It’s a team which deserves a lot of respect. That goes, too, for its striker Ivan Klasnic of Werder Bremen who returned to the national team for the first time since undergoing a kidney transplant operation early last year. If nothing, football is a question of will power. Something I found remarkable was the gesture by England’s new Italian coach Fabio Capello to give David Beckham his 100th cap in the friendly against France in Paris. Perhaps it was a belated thank you. A year ago Capello, the coach of Real Madrid, had brought Beckham back into the Real team after dropping him earlier in the season, and in the end the player helped Capello and Real to win the Spanish league title.

Unfortunately England won’t be at the European Championships after a disastrous qualifying campaign, and there are many in England who believe Beckham won’t win his 101st cap. The ageing superstar had little influence in the 1-0 defeat in Paris and an upheaval of the team is needed.

Beckham’s prospects are now dwindling, which is something you cannot say of France midfielder Franck Ribery, whose goal from the penalty spot decided the game.

Ribery, who has been delighting fans and team-mates alike at Bayern Munich this season, is only 24. He is a player with great potential. When he and Beckham embraced after the game it seemed like a meeting of two generations. The future belongs to Ribery.

At Euro 2008 there will be others to look out for. Maybe the strong Romania, which defeated Russia 3-0. Or even more so, Spain which is undefeated for 15 months. Its 1-0 victory over world champion Italy was a sign that Spain could at last be capable of winning a major title. The Spanish players will hope to give their coach, Luis Aragones, a fitting farewell when he retires after the tournament at the age of 69.

Aragones is under less pressure than Italy coach Roberto Donadoni who has inherited a difficult job and has to hope his worldly-wise world champion team is capable of retaining its ambition.

In Group D, Aragones will be meeting another veteran coach in 69-year-old Otto Rehhagel, the German in charge of Greece. His Greece team may not be capable of sparkling attacking football but in its 2-1 defeat of Portugal, the side it beat in the Euro 2004 final, the team showed once again how effective it is.

Even though Portugal was without its stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Deco, the result has to be taken seriously. No one will again underestimate Rehhagel’s Greek team. It’s a lesson that was learnt at the last European Championships.