Monday, November 19, 2007

A Kingdom United in hope and grief

A Kingdom United in hope and grief.
Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson will tell you otherwise, but it if anyone in the UK thought club international football was no longer the best, they only needed to follow this weekend's relevant Euro 2008 qualifiers.

The fact remains no one club's Champions League success can inspire a country like their national team can on the edge of glory.

After a week of nationalistic hyperbole at the prospect of making the finals ahead of the Sassenachs (their derogatory term for the English), Scotland failed heroically by losing 2-1 at home to Italy and will stay on the Eurostar platform, while England advanced to within a point of qualification without playing a game, thanks to Russia's equally calamitous 2-1 loss to Israel.

You can have all the confidence in the world but that's not enough if you don't have the quality was the painful lesson of the Scots' narrow loss to the Italians in Glasgow.

The gods had done their best to help the home team, chilling the air and opening the heavens to welcome the Azzurri to a Hampden Park that recalled the glorious days of the 'Hampden Roar', when the national stadium was Europe's largest.

But the world champions showed their class by grabbing the game by the neck with a second-minute strike from Luca Toni, and then having weathered the inevitable Scottish storm and equalizer, they stole their hosts' thunder by snatching a last-gasp winner through Christian Panucci.

For England, their late late goal was scored by Israel's Omer Golan in Tel Aviv, but was cheered up and down the land as if it had been struck by Wayne Rooney himself, awarding the little-known Maccabi Petah Tikva striker cult status in the home of football.

Three Lions boss Steve McClaren must have felt like Mark Twain reading his own obituary this week in every newspaper, only to prove reports of death had been greatly exaggerated. Few entertained the possibility of Russia falling short in Israel but with only a point to gain at home to already-qualified Croatia on Wednesday, McClaren has had the last laugh and forced Fleet Street's hacks to file away their epitaphs for another day.

Scotland are still the brave in most people's eyes, but time was when the Scots were shoe-ins for international tournaments and Hampden one of the most feared venues in UEFA. Their near miss in 2007, thanks to a superb team ethic, should not disguise the fact the Scots are still a long way short of their sides of yesteryear and have a lot of catching up to do.

For England the picture is no brighter in reality. The zeitgeist is gloomy in fact. Complaints about the high numbers of overseas players in England grow louder by the hour with more famous players and coaches adding their names to calls for a re-Anglicisation of the national sport.

While laments about the lack of home-grown talent increase, one can't help thinking this was the same crop of players that was called England's 'golden generation' last summer.

There are three other nations in these islands of course, none of whom have much to cheer about either.

The Republic of Ireland and Wales played out a 2-2 draw in Cardiff knowing they had both already been eliminated from UEFA 2008, and while Northern Ireland overcame Denmark 2-1 in Belfast in appalling weather, their qualification for Austria and Switzerland hangs on the unlikely scenario of them winning in Spain and Latvia winning in Sweden on Wednesday.

England look like scraping through to the finals now, but the cradle of the game, the British Isles, is inescapably one of UEFA's weaker regions in 2007.

Beyond these shores, notable mentions must go to Croatia, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain, who all booked their tickets to Euro 2008 on Saturday. The Czech Republic, Germany, Greece and Romania will be there too.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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