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 hopes suffer before a ball is kicked

    They say only mad dogs and Englishmen run around in the sun. Well, only mad dogs would be running around with glee for English prospects now that the draw for the 2002 World Cup has been made.

    Ah yes, the delight that is the World Cup draw. Like many of my compatriots, I will not be drawn into a bitter rant about why we were not seeded. Yes it is true we have won our last two qualifying groups at the expense of Italy and most recently Germany, but we went out in the second round of France 98 and were not even present in 1994. I have no quarrel with us not being seeded, but you have to say that as a worst case scenario Group F is about as bad as it could have been.

    You'd think with a 32 team tournament the first round nightmare that is a "group of death" could be avoided, but yet again one has arisen, and I personally believe this is for the benefit of the tournament as it livens up an otherwise dull first round. However there can be no doubt that English hopes of reaching the latter stages have taken a serious dent.

    First up for England will be Sweden, against whom our record is far from good, we have not beaten them in 33 years. Now England have a Swedish manager in charge you can even now imagine the terrible, pun-ridden headlines if they turn us over in the opening game. This should also be the stage where we find out at last if Henrik Larsson is a genuine world class striker or whether it's just the Scottish league that makes him look like Marco Van Basten.

    Following that is the game on which the whole group will hang, a clash that has connotations reaching back to the last World Cup and beyond, England versus Argentina. Now let's call a spade a spade, Argentina are the best team in the world, and are favourites to win this fixture. However the history between the two, and between certain players on the park, makes it a powder-keg waiting to explode, easily the match of the first round. I honestly believe that if England win this and still go out in the second round, that will be viewed by many (myself not included) as a good World Cup. The hand of god, Campbell's disallowed goal, those penalties - make no mistake about it, England want this victory, and they want it bad.

    Loose cannons, mavericks, brilliant on their day, tactically naive, call them what you will - England's last match in the group could be a dangerous one against the enigma that is Nigeria. They have the capacity to arrive at the World Cup and explode (like they did in their stunning opening game win against Spain in 98) or implode (the 4-1 loss to Denmark in the second round, against a backdrop of in-fighting, also in 98).

    Whatever happens, this is the group in which you do not want to come second. The prize for that will almost certainly be a second round tie against France, and although you have to beat France or a team of that ilk at some point to win the tournament, no-one would really fancy playing them as early as round two. If it is England, another glorious failure looms on the horizon. However if it is Argentina, one of the two best teams in the world will fall, opening up the tournament for everyone else.

    The rest of the groups have a reasonably straightforward look about them - the struggling Brazil have been thrown a bone in group C, facing Turkey, China and Costa Rica and Italy's group (Ecuador, Croatia and Mexico) and subsequent draw if they win it gives them an excellent chance of going all the way. Germany should make it through their group, although I am a little worried for Spain, given their notorious reputation for freezing on the big occasion. Their group of Slovenia, Paraguay and South Africa is a lot harder than it first appears. Of the two hosts I think Japan has a more realistic chance of advancing to the second round, it looks set to be another early exit for South Korea.

    Everything up until May 31st 2002 though is just hot air. No doubt there will be upsets, drama, controversy along the way, the World Cup never loses its capacity to surprise you. Now our appetites have been wetted, I cannot wait for it to begin - no matter how hard England's group is.



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