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
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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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