World Cup qualifiers — the highs and lows


IT'S a mad world, my masters! One in which the inept England team manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, already overpaid a grotesque �4 million a year, now actually gets a bonus for England's messy qualification out of what was surely the easiest of all the European groups. He has made the creditably fatuous noises about how splendid it all is, what bright prospects lie ahead, while one of his team has declared that England have 10 of the best players in the world. In which case, Heaven help the world.

Beaten and utterly humiliated in Belfast by little Northern Ireland, clumsy winners in Wales, held to an embarrassing draw in Vienna, this England team and their manager have largely been a disgrace. What earthly reason is there for believing that Eriksson will do any better in Germany than he did in Japan and Portugal, where his side flopped out of the quarter-finals?

At Old Trafford, the Austrians were surely there for the taking. One looked on, baffled and finally appalled by how heavy a task England made it seem. Under the aegis of their former star centre forward Hans Krenkl, who had in the interim been manoeuvred into premature resignation, the Austrians had sparkled and revived in their previous Euro match against the Poles in Chorzow; where Krankl brought on an extra striker in Roland Linz at half-time. Then 2-0 down, Austria proceeded to carry the battle to the increasingly uneasy Poles, who could do little with Linz. He scored twice, and in the closing stages hit the bar with a shot which would have made it 3-2.

But in Manchester, to my astonishment, Krankl's fearful successors, in charge just for this game till the Rapid Vienna and ex-Austria manager Hicksberger takes over, put Linz on from the start; all alone! Even so, he could well have equalised the Frank Lampard penalty, which was all that England could squeeze out of the occasion, when John Terry mis-headed a high ball backwards and Linz's consequent shot was pushed against the bar by the England 'keeper, Paul Robinson.

That David Beckham got himself sent off for the second time in his England career hardly helped; but nor did Eriksson's bizarre substitutions or the lack of them. You wondered what possessed him to keep the 6 foot 5 inch Peter Crouch on the field, having missed the simplest of heading chances, when he could have brought on Charlton's Bent who could have put it away in his sleep. No Rooney of course, but last time out in Belfast, Eriksson had ludicrously stuck him out on the left wing to fester and fulminate. England joint favourites with Brazil, as Michael Owen would have us believe? Pull the other one. But the pitiful F.A. are hoist with their own petard, having in their inexplicable panic given Eriksson that extended �4 million contract as a "reward" for sneaking behind their backs and talking to Chelsea.

On the brighter side, how good to see Ghana qualifying for a World Cup at last. For many years they and their talented Black Stars team were the best of African football. Time and again I tried to persuade the blinkered and bigoted English clubs to go down to sub-Saharan Africa to look at the talent but they never did. Players of Ghanaian extraction made their name in France, but finally we have a Ghanaian star in England in the shape of the hugely expensive Michael Essien, excelling in midfield for Chelsea. I'm sure he will make his mark in the World Cup, too.

The exuberant Dutch, whose impressive 2-0 victory away to the Czechs made sure that England would crawl into the World Cup finals, have far more right to be optimistic than Eriksson, Owen and company. Marco van Basten, once their outstanding centre forward, has transformed the team since he controversially took over. Controversially because he had no great coaching qualifications, having merely run the reserve team at his old club, Ajax. But what a reserve team! Holland are enjoying the fruits of it now. Boldly, Van Basten has done away with much of the old guard.

Even the abrasive, bespectacled, Edgar Davids, now at Tottenham, could do no better than sit on the bench against the Czechs though he is eager to figure again in World Cup finals.

Instead, Van Basten has turned to those he so successfully coached once when they were Ajax reserves: Rafael Van der Vart, the flanker who scored one of the goals last time out against the Czechs, the excellent, opportunist midfielder Wesley Sneijder, still only 21, and Nigel de Jongzo, super versatile, quite able to play anywhere the length of the right flank. True, the veteran 'keeper Edwin van der Sar was obliged to save a Czech penalty, but in the end the Dutch cruised through to their 15th unbeaten game. And their strength in depth was shown when, late on, one left flank attacker Arjen Robben was replaced by Arsenal's lively Robin van Persie.

Brazil must surely be strongly favoured. They have recovered from a defeat in the qualifiers by Argentina in Buenos Aires, beating the Argentines (admittedly below full strength) sound in Germany in the subsequent Confederations Cup, bubbling over with attacking talent: Adriano, Ronaldo, Robinho, Ronaldinho. Argentina should though be taken seriously, with Hernan Crespo, absent in Germany, one of the leading goal scorers of his time.

Portugal have qualified but you do wonder about a team which scraped through at home 2-1 with a very late goal against tiny Lichenstein; a goal scored on 86 minutes by Nuno Gomez, who had been on only a couple of minutes as a substitute. Are the parts greater than the whole?