Sunday, June 8, 2008

Away from the Alps, the uninvited dream

Now Euro 2008 is in full swing, spare a thought for those not invited to the party.

36 European nations failed to make it to the Alps. England might stand out among them, but also missing is 2006 World Cup quarter-finalists Ukraine, plus nations of the calibre of Belgium, Serbia, Denmark, Slovakia, Norway and Ireland.
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England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland really should have revived the British Championship this summer and for extra spice added the Republic of Ireland and as a wild card, Gibraltar.

A friendly with Gibraltar from any of the four UK nations with an empty diary this month would be a nice affirmation of the peninsula's desires to stay British.

The Rock is not affiliated to UEFA, thanks to Spain's filibustering, so like an ugly girl or boy, they are desperate for any date. Given that it is customary to play a reciprocal fixture at your visitors' stadium after inviting them to yours, England could easily drop by for 90 minutes, though the apes would probably nick the half-time oranges.

England are on the quayside looking on again but looking tasty too after dispatching the USA 2-0 at Wembley last week.

David Beckham is clearly a new man and seemed to be glowing post-match having seen off the challenge of his young pretender David Bentley, with a top-drawer 45 minutes.

That Becks could figure in a fourth World Cup finals seemed impossible when he gave his tearful resignation speech in Germany 2006, but now the prospect grows ever likelier.

England finally have found a rhythm under Fabio Capello and on that performance, could surely have made more of an impression at Euro 2008 than some of the qualifiers and 'qualifers' (host nations).

2010 now beckons for England fans hopeful of a renewed assault on the big prize.
The USA took more of a psychological blow than anything from Wembley.

Having lost by the same score 14 years ago at the same venue, the States were looking to prove progress had been made.

In the meantime the States have achieved a World Cup quarter-final finish in 2002, have won three of the last four CONCACAF Gold Cups and enjoyed recent away wins over Euro 2008 qualifiers Poland and Switzerland.

Barring an almighty catastrophe, the US will be in the World Cup finals forever more, given CONCACAF, one of FIFA's weaker regions, with coincidentally two large TV markets, is handed a generous three and a half places for the finals.

But the US is most eager to impress against European nations like England, which makes Wembley's 2-0 defeat all the more depressing. "We're Americans, we want to be the best at everything," said winger DaMarcus Beasley post-game, and he meant it.

The Republic of Ireland and Colombia squared up at Fulham a day later in front of a passionate and colourful 18,000 crowd.

Both nations have been off the world radar for the past few years. Ireland did reach the second round of the 2002 World Cup where they lost on penalties to Spain, but their campaign was wounded by Roy Keane's furious outburst and exiling from the camp.

While the Jack Charlton years were always going to be a one-off era, Giovanni Trapattoni looks to have what it takes make Ireland a regular qualifier for tournaments once again.

Trap, a coach of enormous experience, belied his white hair and 66 years, by whistling as loudly as ever to his players (they nickname him 'il fischio' - the whistle, in his native Italy) and gesticulating manically as only he can on the touchline.

Post-game, Trap had the enthusiasm of a teenager for the game, speaking as if he was in his first job and certainly in no mood for retirement. He mentioned Greece's unforeseen Euro 2004 win as his inspiration, explaining it thus;

"If you are a pianist, you play the piano, if you are a singer, you sing, so I say to my players, 'What are we? We are a team."

Eire played a solid, and almost Italian defensive game against Colombia, grabbing an early goal through Robbie Keane and then defending it against an increasingly rampant opponent.

But it was no catenaccio night. Ireland showed impressive teamwork and a fluid organisation sadly lacking under previous incumbents Steve Staunton and Brian Kerr.

Colombia look to be on the up too after defeating Argentina and drawing with Brazil in their 2010 World Cup qualifiers. Having not qualified for the past two finals, Los Cafeteros seem to be set fair to retake the place behind South America's big two which in the early 1990s seemed would be theirs for some time.

Unbelievably, Colombia only entered World Cup qualifying in 1958 but made it to the finals in Chile four years later.

Their next appearance in 1990, saw them draw 1-1 with eventual winners Germany in the group stage, a curious game in which captain Carlos Valderrama, the first Colombian ever to play in Europe, appeared to feign injury and be stretchered off before quickly recovering during the first half before his team left the soon-to-be world champions chasing shadows with some amazing passing football.

Colombia seemed to be toying with the Germans, who then shocked them by taking the lead in the 89th through Pierre Littbarski, sending Colombia towards elimination. Freddy Rincon saved their bacon by nutmegging Bodo Illgner in injury time.

Crazy goalkeeper Rene Higuita, he of the scorpion kick, monkeyed around against Cameroon in the next round and was dispossessed a good 40 yards out of his goal by Roger Milla, who went on and scored and sent Colombia home.

Colombia hit the headlines for the wrong reasons in 1994 when they lost 2-1 to the USA in a game many have fingered as being fixed by drug baron Pablo Escobar and friends.
His namesake Andres Escobar scored an own goal and was promptly murdered on his return to Colombia.

Times have changed, Pablo Escobar is dead, the Medellin cartel and the FARC no longer hold sway, and the national team is undergoing renaissance too.

Jorge Luis Pinto has fashioned a neat passing team with plenty of pace and technique, although against Ireland they showed the classic shortcoming all great passing teams suffer from, the lack of a powerful striker.

Euro 2008 might be underway, but those not at the party still have the future to dream about.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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