Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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English fortunes come full circle

    It was less than a year ago that, after the dismal failure of Euro 2000, England's World Cup hopes lay in ruins after losing the final ever game at Wembley to Germany. The hapless Kevin Keegan duly fell on his sword, and four days later under caretaker coach Howard Wilkinson they played out a similarly turgid 0-0 draw in Finland. The World Cup could not have seemed further away.

    After that glorious evening last saturday in Munich, and the subsequent 2-0 victory over Albania in midweek, England are now poised to win the group, having previously looked more likely to have to scrap with Finland and Greece for a play-off place. So how has this transformation come about?

    Much to the chargin of many of the public and most of the tabloid press, the FA appointed England's first foreign manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, to replace Keegan. Despite being one of the best managers in the world, certain sections of the press reacted in the xenophobic manner that seems integral to the English psyche. It would not be long before they were proved wrong.

    One of the many changes Eriksson has made, but perhaps the key one, is to dispense with players who are vastly experienced and loyal but no longer up to standard and replace them with young up and coming players (his baffling faith in David Seaman excluded). And the advantage for Eriksson and England is that at the present time England have talented young players in spades.

    Ashley Cole is a raw but talented left-back that has forced Silvinho out of the Arsenal team. Inside him are Rio Ferdinand, the world's most expensive defender, and Wes Brown of Manchester United, who may give their fans no cause to miss Jaap Stam at all. In midfield Owen Hargreaves was a revelation in the latter stages of the Champions League with Bayern Munich, and has thankfully pledged his international career to England. Also coming through is West Ham prodigy Joe Cole and his club colleague Michael Carrick. The pick of the crop is Steven Gerrard of Liverpool, so influential in Munich, and cut from the Roy Keane/Edgar Davids mold but with far more to offer going forward. If he can stay clear of his worrying injury troubles he may eclipse them both. Add to this the striking talent of Emile Heskey of Liverpool and Alan Smith at Leeds United and you get envious glances the world over.

    You can add to this England's three undeniable world class players in David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen and other established internationals such as Sol Campbell, Gary Neville and Steve McManaman, which justifies Arsene Wenger's belief that England could be the next France.

    Eriksson has taken these players and formed a team that has won 7 of its 8 games under his command, three of which were tricky away qualifiers in Albania, Greece and of course Germany. He has created the atmosphere of a club side with the England team. Appointing David Beckham as captain surprised many, but just by being one of the best players in the world he raises the game of everyone around him, which is a far more effective motivational tool than a Churchillian speech from a limited player. The self-belief of England in the Olympiastadion last week was obvious, and was in part Germany's downfall. Prior to the game Rudi Voller and Franz Beckenbauer both matter-of-factly stated that they would win, and the German FA had even arranged friendly matches on the dates of the play-offs, so confident were they that they would win the group. This belief stemmed from the Germans being convinced that England, because of Leon in 1970, because of the 1990 and 1996 shoot-outs and because of the last game at Wembley, did not have the self-belief to beat them. This was one of many myths punctured on the night the England team sent its fans into heaven.

    It does have to be stated that the thrashing of Germany has been devalued by the current shambolic state of their national side. Yes they are not the strongest they have ever been, but they were qualifying with some ease before they were abruptly stopped in their tracks last week, and it was only their second ever defeat in World Cup qualifying history. The Germans looked bad, but they were made to look bad.

    Terry Venables once said of England "We always believe we are the best team in the world or the worst - the truth is we are neither." I will not be rushing out to stake a fortune on England lifting the World Cup next June. As my colleague Ruud has previously stated, Argentina are favourites by some distance and I would also rate French chances very highly. England are improving all the time, but maybe South Korea/Japan will be too soon for them. You cannot be certain of that though, just look at the difference in the past twelve months. Argentina and France might not be quaking in their boots, but they will certainly be looking over their shoulders.



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