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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Surveying the landscape

    Last weekend, just ten weeks after Ronaldo’s double sank Germany in Yokohama, saw the beginning of the road to Portugal 2004. There is a sense of after the Lord Mayors Show about the opening bout of European Championship qualifiers, after all most European leagues have barely cranked into first gear, and the financial mess that is Serie A hasn’t even got her keys in the ignition. Nonetheless, competitive international football is back on the menu in Europe, and it will be interesting to see how the land lies on the premier football continent after the events of the summer.

    After a few stagnant years it now appears that Germany have their house in order and are back to doing what they do best, appearing in finals of international football competitions. Who would have thought that after shipping five goals to England in their own back yard last September nine months later Germany would run Brazil so close in the final? And maybe, just maybe, had Ballack not been suspended they could have walked away with the ultimate prize.

    Critics (who are legion) would no doubt point out that their route to the final was hardly the most demanding. Well, the trend has continued through to the Euro 2004 qualifiers, where in Group 5 Germany face the might of the Faeroe Islands, Lithuania, Iceland and, despite fierce competition, the worst Scotland team of all time, managed by ex national manager Berti Vogts. Germany begin their arduous trek along this path strewn with rose petals on Saturday against Lithuania.

    Once again this summer a European nation failed to lift the World Cup away from their own soil, and the reputations of many of the continents finest took a hammering. Holland did not even qualify for the finals, which deprived the tournament of the likes of Davids, Kluivert and van Nistelrooy. When by contrast you see the limp performances of the Saudi Arabians this summer, you really do have to wonder about the continental qualifying system. The 2004 championship marks a watershed for this Dutch team, a last chance to shine for a clutch of stars who burst onto the scene when Ajax won the Champions League in 1995.

    The nation with the most to prove I suspect will be France, having won no games and scored precisely no goals in the World Cup, despite having in their squad golden boot winners from Serie A, the Premiership and the French league. Expect a backlash from a man who in my mind is still the greatest player in the world, Zinedine Zidane. The biggest tragedy of the World Cup was that, after scoring a goal that defies superlatives to win the Champions League, Zizou picked up an injury on the eve of the world cup that reduced him to a hobbling, bit part role when France crumbled to Denmark. Even though he has won everything, that will have stung his pride, and expect France to win Group 1 easily after easing their way in against Cyprus.

    My comments about Italian reaction to their elimination this summer on this site led to my inbox being crammed with bile, abuse and hatred, so I will not tread over that old ground. Italy seriously under-performed though, but still have one of the most talent laden squads around, but should beware of their opponents in Group 9. Yugoslavia will be no pushover and Finland and Wales are potential banana skins. They begin their campaign way out in Azerbaijan tomorrow.

    The hosts of the whole shebang visit England for a friendly this weekend, and have a long, cathartic two years of friendlies to get the nightmare of June 2002 out of their system. When they kick off Euro 2004 it will be the last days in the sun for the fabled golden generation, maybe they will then produce something to back up such a lofty title. On the plus side, at least in the European Championship they will not have to face the USA or South Korea.

    I will cover England in greater depth when they kick off against Slovakia next month, but back in January at the draw the nation raised a collective cheer when we were drawn against Turkey. Great, we all thought, we never lose to Turkey. Back in the eighties and early nineties we played them all the time in qualifying and on two separate occasions hammered them eight-nil. Then they go and finish third in Japan/Korea. Oh.

    Really, we shouldn’t have been surprised. Were it not for a missed penalty and some scandalous refereeing when they played Portugal at Euro 2000, they would have made the semi-finals there as well. They have progressed in twenty years from being one rung above Malta and Luxembourg to a bona fide force in world football, a credit to the national side and also the strides made by the clubs in the champions league. In Yildiray Basturk they possess perhaps the best midfielder on show in the Far East. You can take rest assured that England will not be expecting an easy ride this time around.

    What then of Spain? Not for the first time they suffered a crisis of confidence in a World Cup quarter-final and went no further. A crushing disappointment, especially as they had looked so good in the earlier rounds, but then that is Spain all over. They have the best league in the world, some amazing teams like Valencia, Barcelona and the Harlem Globetrotters (aka Real Madrid), yet at international level…. Who can figure it out? With that many good players, the law of averages dictates that they must surely produce on the big stage sooner or later. They don’t have the easiest route to the finals, a tricky opener in Greece with the Ukraine to follow, but with the finals awaiting them on their doorstep, they should have enough in their locker to pull off their brilliant-in-qualifying-dismal-at-the-finals routine once again.

    Of the other groups, Sweden look a shoe in to win their group over Poland, and in group 8 Belgium and Croatia will fight it out for top spot. The Republic of Ireland have their toughest game first, away to Russia, and although they papered over the cracks of Roy Keane’s departure this summer, it won’t be long before his absence is sorely, obviously missed. Perhaps the most intriguing clash of the weekend is the all Scandinavian match-up of Norway versus Denmark in group 2.

    So off we go again. The World Cup is becoming a faded memory now, time to look inwards to your own continent for a couple of years. Maybe along the way Euro 2004 will throw up a couple of teams capable of taking the greatest prize of all from the Brazilians in Germany in 2006.



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