Matthew Monk

Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Quantifying the qualifiers

    And so back to the football. Sven Goran Eriksson still hasn't worked it out. England are not supposed to be an exciting and enthralling team. They should be boring and strong; perennial unlucky losers. So what on Earth has been going on since he took over? Six straight World Cup victories and sixteen goals have seen England qualify for Japan/Korea 2002 if not in style, with lots of swagger and flair mixed in with decreasing amounts of North European sweat and toil. Even more unbelievably England are now being talked about as possible World Cup winners, by Der Kaiser himself no less. Just what is going on?

    England fans shouldn't get too excited though. This afternoon's performance against Greece showed that England are not yet the finished article. With Michael Owen injured, and Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes strangely off form, England struggled against a team even Albania beat at home. Like the game against Germany, I am not sure what this result tells us about England. Is the team that played today going to beat France or Argentina? No. Will the team that beat Germany so convincingly beat France or Argentina? Now there is something to ponder on.

    Arguably a better performance during the European qualifiers has come from the Republic of Ireland, who eliminated Holland and almost forced Portugal into the playoffs. Eighteen months ago the chances of this happening were about as distant as England beating Germany 5-1. Oh wait, that happened didn't it?

    Joking aside, the Irish have emerged as the surprise qualifiers in Europe, although they will still have to travel to Asia to confirm their place. Beating Holland in Dublin is the best result achieved by the Irish under Mick McCarthy, and rivals almost anything achieved by Jackie Charlton. However the big story is the collapse of Holland in just two years.

    Going back just to July 2000, Holland looked to be about to embark on another era of dominance. Frank Rijkaard had led Holland to the semi finals of Euro 2000 (where Italy had only just sneaked past them on penalties), and Louis van Gaal was expected to use the experience he gained at Ajax and Barcelona to propel the Dutch onto Japan and Korea. So what happened? The signs were there for all to see when Ireland held Holland to a 2:2 draw at the Amsterdam ArenA in the first game of the qualifiers, but this would be the only blip, surely?

    Is the World Cup without Holland devalued? Yes, it is, but Holland have only got themselves to blame. Far too many Dutch players are living off reputations gained when Ajax won the European Cup or at France 98. But what have players like Edgar Davids or Patrick Kluivert really done since then (Euro 2000 aside)? The biggest factor in the decline of the Dutch was when van Gaal tried to reassemble his Ajax squad at Barcelona, but failed to reconstruct the spirit and success of that truly excellent team. van Gaal must have realised that the lynchpins of his great team - Danny Blind and Rijkaard - were retired and had to be replaced, yet he simply seemed to attach the younger but mentally weak members of that team to solid, but fairly average Catalans (like Pep Guardiola and Abelardo). Worse, players like Kluivert, Seedorf and Davids were feted as superstars and saddled with multi-million dollar price tags that they simply could not live up to.

    This is only the first half of the story though. Holland no longer have the same calibre of players. Dennis Bergkamp scored the best goal of France 98, and would have been an asset to any team in the world. His replacement is Ruud van Nistelrooy, once of PSV, and now Manchester United's 18.5 million 'star striker'. Comparisons between the two should stop at the fact that they both have played in England. Simply, van Nistelrooy is barely a quarter of the player Bergkamp was, yet he was supposed to fire Holland into the World Cup. The lack of talent doesn't stop there. Kevin Hofland, Jaap Stam, Bert Konterman? Not exactly the defensive line-up to strike fear into the hearts of Europe's best forwards. The rest of the squad are little better - Rob Makaay and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink may score plenty of goals in Spain and England, but at international level Holland need better players.

    It is a shame. I have always liked Holland, and love to visit the country. The national side has produced some of the greatest players in history - Gullit, Cruyff, van Basten - but I fear that the failure to qualify for Japan/Korea 2002 will be repeated in the near future. Even the victory over England in August was flawed; 11 English substitutions, and five Liverpool players desperate to avoid injury, tells quite a tale.

    Of course, the standard that all European teams must meet is that of the French. They have taken no part in the qualifiers, and may just suffer in Japan/Korea because of it. Since 1998 the French have barely changed their squad, and although they barely needed to, to win Euro 2000, the likes of Petit, Djorkaeff and Desailly are fast approaching 'veteran' status and no alternative players have been exposed to competitive football for a long time.

    The Confederations Cup win should not be seen as a pointer to an easy second world championship. What will happen to France if Henry, Barthez or Viera get injured between now and next June? Better-paid commentators argue that the French have a squad of almost unlimited depth and ability, but how much top level experience do Mikael Silvestre and Benoit Cauet have? Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that France will struggle next year, but the glorious age of French football will end one day, and if this ageing squad is broken up by injury, I wonder how soon it will happen.



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