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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On the Road Again - Part Two

    Last time we left our travels through European qualifying in Paris, having just watched – through the amazing crystal ball future predictor PWC has furnished all its columnists with – the French dominate Group Four. We are now off to board our Alitalia flight down to Rome to see if Italy can make it look as easy in Group Five. It won't be.

    Group Five is the first of our G14 groups, kept to six teams in order to aid the progress of Juve, Milan and Inter in the Champions League. The draw has not been that kind to the Italians though – Slovenia, Scotland, Belarus and, above all, Norway are all very capable of springing a few surprises along the way.

    Italy have just come through a hard, drawn out European qualifying group against Wales and Finland. Although the 2:1 defeat to Wales in Cardiff came early on in the Italians campaign, it certainly gave Il Trappatoni food for thought. Italy have a good, strong generation of footballers, spearheaded by Christian Vieri and Alex Del Piero, yet they are still haunted by that loss in Korea. They are a workmanlike, uncomplicated team, and they are beatable. It is just that when the going gets tough in a seething San Siro or Stadio Olimpico, Italy have historically had what it takes to get past just about any other European team. They tend to struggle most in qualification against other top class opponents – think England in 1997 – rather than the likes of Wales, who were summarily dismissed this September. And Italian football is on the up. Last season's Champions League final between Milan and Juve might have been utterly boring, but the way Juventus shut out the galacticos of Real Madrid was a sight to behold in the semi-final. Italian football is in one of its defensive phases currently, with Gennaro Gattuso arguably the most important player with his holding midfield role. How the Italians will cope on the big stage without Paolo Maldini we will discover for the first time in Portugal. It will be interesting to see whether Vieri and Inzaghi can form a potent enough strike force given the decidedly defensive nature of the rest of the team is yet another question. They should do.

    If the Italians will win the group – and that is likely rather than certain – then who takes second spot? Scotland chased Germany down to grab the second spot from Iceland in Euro 2004 qualification, but that they so nearly lost out to them in the first place is indicative of the perilous state Berti Vogts finds his team in right now. Scotland has no proven stars to choose from for the first time in footballing history. Even in the 1990s they had Ally McCoist, Duncan Ferguson (for about three! weeks), Paul Lambert and John Collins. Nowadays the best Vogts can muster are Darren Fletcher of Manchester United and James McFadden of Everton: two young, evidently gifted, but utterly untried prospects. That he is calling up strikers from the lower reaches of the Scottish Premier League tells a sorry tale for Scottish strength in depth.

    So if not the Scottish, who will compete to push the Italians for qualification? Well, Norway, the surprise story of mid-1990s football, are desperate for some sort of triumph following some very, very tough years since beating Brazil in 1998, but their chances for 2006 hardly look better. Still, you cannot rule out the Norwegians. If they can beat Scotland and Slovenia away from the Ullevaal, or even hold for a draw, the team which twice humiliated England in World Cup qualifiers might well be on the way back. And you can bet that every Italian fan is looking forward to their trip to Oslo about as much as they would an away fixture in the Maracana.

    A plus point for Norway and Italy is that they at least have a measure of consistency, something the Scots in particular would do well to imitate. An almost exact mirror image is Slovenia, conquerors of Romania last time around, then obliterated by Spain, Paraguay and South Africa come Korea in June 2002. Then Zlatko Zahovic was expected to lead his 10-year-old country to international fame and recognition; today the best any Slovene can look forward to is likely to be tight home wins over Scotland and Belarus, with tough away points gained at the expense of Italy and Norway. Don't expect that though, and after all that we go for, 1. Italy, 2. Norway (possibly even on Goal Difference) and into the play-offs.

    England arrive on the scene next, matched against perpetual opponents Poland, Austria, Azerbaijan and fellow Home Nations Wales and Northern Ireland. At a stroke we can eliminate Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan, who have no chance of beating anyone except each other, and who may well find it hard to even score a goal. The glory days of 1982 are long gone for Billy Bingham's old team, who recently went over 15 hours between goals and faced with four competent opponents! , will be outclassed eight times. Dignity will be preserved simply by holding teams to a draw at Windsor Park, and by keeping the score down away. The same applies to Azerbaijan in equal measure.

    To fight out the two places we have England, Austria, Poland and Wales. England are seeded here and will surely qualify. Reaching the play-offs would be a disaster for Sven's team, even though you get the idea Sepp would invent a new rule to see England drawn against Vanuatu or somewhere, just to get this lucrative TV market active in Germany. After a very promising World Cup last year England have to be expectant in 2006. All the star players – the Beckham's, Owen's, Gerrard's and Rooney's – are already more experienced. Three more seasons of Champions League football will only extend that, and a good performance in Portugal next year can only help. England's toughest opponents in qualifying will not be the second seed Poles or Austrians. Instead England will be most looking forward to – and most fearful of – the Welsh, a team they have not played since 1983.

    Wales are just about the most improved European side in recent seasons, and if it were not for a final second collapse against Russia, they would be taking part in Portugal next summer. Their disintegration in the play-off second leg was as unexpected at their heroic victory over Italy in Cardiff a year before. Populated mainly by journeymen from the English and Scottish leagues, the Welsh can spring a shock and grab second place, especially if England do them a favour by beating everyone else home and away. Now! that is not impossible. Austria have gone backwards since performing appallingly in France 98, while the Poles were humiliated in Korea last year. The days of Lato, Boniek, Zmuda and Deyna are long since gone, and for Poland second place (and the play-offs) is the best they can achieve. It is inconceivable that they will push out the English again like 1973.

    The good thing for the competitors here is that it is a six-team group. Two or three good results will see the opposition dropped, and should the record of the runner's up be good enough, automatic passage to Germany is very possible. England are going to win the group, it is second place that will be closer. Expect Austria to compete strongly, Poland to flatter to deceive in Chorzow, and Wales to continue their progression inspired by English victories. 1. England, 2. Wales.

    Two groups left, and first we head aboard our Iberia Airbus to Madrid, home of the galacticos, everyone's second favourite football team, Real Madrid. Eventually Sepp is going to give up trying to convince us that the last World Cup winners are the best team in the world, and just let Real, Milan, Juve and all the other G14 compete in the World Cup as equal participants. When that happens, no national association will ever win the World Cup again.

    Real Madrid could defeat any national side, anywhere in the world, at any time. They simply have the best set of 11 players anywhere, and no single national association could compete. The problem is very few of them are Spanish. Raul is world-class (as his unparalleled record in the Champions League shows), yet the rest of the galacticos are Brazilian, French, Portuguese, English and Argentinean. However, the galacticos are not at all bad for Spanish football.

    Before Italy won the 1982 World Cup, they went through a ten-year period where foreign born players were banned from playing in Serie A. This was touted as the major reason Italy had done so well in Argentina, and eventually won in 1982. It was said that by forcing Juve, Milan, Inter and Roma to buy Italian, to unearth Rossi, Conti, Tardelli and Scirea, the Italian FA gave Enzo Bearzot a head start. Undoubtedly, Italy had suffered in 1974 from gangs of ageing stars (like Helmut Haller and Jose Altafini) being prevalent in Serie A, yet the national team's failings had much more to do with the likes of Riva, Mazzola and Rivera being past their best. Similarly, though foreigners were absent from Serie A by 1978 – when Italy finished fourth – this success was much more to do with the natural arrival of the generation of Bettega, Rossi, Scirea and Antognoni than any ban. Victory in 1982 was the culmination of many factors – the lack of foreign players in Serie A not being vital among them.

    Why am I telling you all this? Well many commentators feel Spain in 2004 is in the same situation Italy was in 1974 – too many foreigners stopping talented Spanish youngsters from coming through, and thus holding back the Spanish national team. This is blatant nonsense. Italy again reached the very final stages of the 1990 and 1994 tournaments while Serie A had just as many foreign players as the Primera Liga has today. The difference is that Spain choke at every tournament, always have a great first team and rubbish reserves, and if anything have been helped massively by having Ronaldo, Zidane, Beckham and Roberto Carlos playing in their league.

    Spain should have won either the World Cup or at very least a second European Championship by now, yet they look as far away as ever. This is the best Spanish side ever, with genuinely world class Spanish players, and 2006 could be their chance. Group 7 pits Spain against Belgium, Serbia, Bosnia, Lithuania and San Marino, and may as well have been five teams from the Mexican fourth division. Spain will walk away with this group, should not drop a point – though they still will regardless – and will be dull compared to what we have to look forward to elsewhere. There are some tricky obstacles in theory for Spain – Serbia in the Marakana, Bosnia in Sarajevo – but if Spain does not dominate like Real here they should give up right now.

    It is at this point that all the African, Asian and American football fans should feel free to complain that UEFA gets too many places at the World Cup. Serbia, Bosnia and the boring, boring Belgians will have a possible automatic qualification spot in their hands thanks to this draw, and no matter how often European teams dominate the World Cup, this is wrong. Belgium always seems to turn up in the World Cup Finals although no one ever seems to know how. This is how they do it. Brussels is a difficult place to visit in search of victory so many teams settle for a draw – this suits Belgium most of the time. In the return matches, Belgium's opponents feel the need to attack and leave space, which the Belgians somehow always, always exploit to snatch more draws and low scoring victories. And they are always, always seeded away from more than one of Europe's best teams, so they get through, to lose after a series of dull, low-scoring matches at the Finals. Please somebody in Serbia or Bosnia – even all you San Marinans – stop Belgium doing this again. I really cannot take anymore boring first round matches like we had in Japan last time. Its not going to happen is it. Group Winners: Spain, by some distance; Second: Belgium…. Yawn! And you know what is worse about this, they will probably pick up enough points to qualify automatically. It's just not fair….

    And so we finally get to Sweden, the seeded team in Group 8, home to another one of the perennial European qualifiers. This time though we find a horrible group, already a definite 'Group of Death' contender (and not in the Belgian wanting to kill yourself while enduring another scoreless draw way). Sweden, Croatia, Bulgaria, Iceland and Hungary are all similarly matched teams, while supposed minnows Malta are getting better and cannot be ruled out altogether. This one is not going to be easy.

    Bulgaria are returning to something like their mid-1990s form and won a Euro 2004 qualifying group containing Croatia, Estonia and Belgium easily in the end. Just like the Portuguese, Latvians and English, the future outlook for Bulgarian football depends on how well they do in Portugal this summer, but faced with Denmark, Italy and Sweden hopes do not look good. In actuality this is the most open and closely matched of all the groups. Sweden, Bulgaria and Croatia have all qualified for Portugal, while Iceland and Hungary could have made the play-offs as well. Only Malta has no chance here, for all the advances they have made recently. Malta regularly hos! t top quality winter football tournaments given their gorgeous climate, and this is helping them improve. The problem is, Malta is just too small and has such a limited range of players to choose from that they will never make the final stages of a tournament. But then we were saying that about Slovenia and Latvia not so long ago, weren't we!

    This is a just about impossible group to predict, so all we can do is wait for a clearer picture to unfold next year. I have a hunch that Sweden will sneak clear to win the group a game or two early, and that Bulgaria will continue their advances to grab the final play-off berth. I bet it doesn't happen though!

    And that's that. We have the Czech Republic, Denmark, Portugal, Russia, France, Italy, England, Spain, Sweden, Belgium and Germany in the finals automatically. Holland, Turkey, Switzerland, Norway, Wales and Bulgaria have reached the play-offs, which is a blind-draw and as such cannot be predicted. Holland, Turkey and Wales are the best three teams on paper, yet I have a suspicion that Switzerland will make the finals instead of either Turkey or Wales. In the end, none of us really knows. It'll be fun to watch – here at PWC of course!



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