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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Looking to push things forward on the banks of the Danube

    It has taken the country a while to get over it, but as England prepare to launch their Euro 2004 campaign against Slovakia on Saturday, it seems that we have at last come to terms with the epic disappointment of the quarterfinal defeat to Brazil in the World Cup.

    People outside of England may wonder why we were so downhearted – after all, Brazil did go on to win the World Cup, and England went a lot further in the competition than many thought possible, especially with the black clouds over Beckham’s participation. For better or worse though, we are English, and obligated to find fault somewhere and moan about it.

    What rankles most with the supporters is the way the game was lost. It was all going so well when the partially fit Michael Owen chipped the ball over Marcos to put England ahead, but two pieces of brilliance either side of half-time from Ronaldinho (yes, he meant the free-kick folks) turned the match on its head. Brazil were on top, and it looked all over for England. Then came the get out of jail card that England had been praying for – Ronaldinho sent off for a rash challenge on Mills. Brazil took off Ronaldo, and everyone, at least in England, thought that England would hurl themselves forwards, swing in crosses, create chances, give it everything in a desperate attempt to save the day. It never happened.

    We are used to seeing our national team, if they are to be eliminated, go down with all guns blazing – we saw it at Mexico 86, where Lineker all but equalised in the last minute; we saw it in Italia 90, where we outplayed West Germany over 120 minutes but succumbed to penalties for the first (and sadly not last) time; and at France 98, where with ten players England played with a passion that amazed Daniel Passarella. An entire generation of England fans knows no different, and against Brazil we expected it again, as sure as night follows day. All we could muster in that awful thirty minutes after the red card was a deflected shot over the bar from Danny Mills. Why?

    Well, I for one am not buying the weather argument peddled by some as an excuse. Too hot? Suits the Brazilians? Don’t give me that. It was eighty-seven degrees that day, which is often less humid than the opening Saturdays of the Premiership. And the daytime sun certainly didn’t bother the Republic of Ireland, who battled back in their game against Cameroon. Lest we forget, all of their players play in the same Premiership.

    Tired after a long Premiership season? Well, maybe, but who in the Premiership, Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A wouldn’t have been? Those leagues supplied most of the players after all. Roberto Carlos, the best player on the pitch against England, played a mind-boggling eighty games last season, and Lucio, with all the exertions of Leverkusen, put in a mammoth shift as well.

    There is only one reason I’m afraid – the tactics. Throughout the tournament, indeed through the whole of Eriksson’s reign, they have been simple – soak up the pressure, hit quickly on the break. These worked flawlessly in THAT match in Munich last year and most satisfyingly against Argentina in the World Cup itself. It relies heavily on transferring the ball quickly from midfield to attack, on Beckham/Gerrard/Scholes releasing Owen and Heskey. Play for the first goal, then defend it.

    Prior to the Brazil match England had conceded one goal in 360 minutes of World Cup football, from a monumental blunder by Mills. As soon as Rivaldo equalised deep into first half injury time, most feared the worst. When Ronaldinho scored, it wouldn’t matter that he would later be sent off; England had neither the wit nor the imagination to force themselves back into the game. When forced to chase the match, they looked clueless as they stumbled around the pitch, and by the same token Brazils’s retention of the ball with just ten players was exceptional. Having focused so much on defence, when they really needed to make it count up front they could not produce it.

    From a team that scored five in Munich earlier in the season, it was a massive disappointment. I think Eriksson erred so much on the side of caution due to Beckham’s lack of fitness, the absence of Gerrard in the centre of the pitch, the half-fit Owen up front and, as was later reported, Scholes struggling heavily with his asthma. Throughout the tournament the defenders were outstanding, but up against the most dangerous front three in the tournament, they were undone, like everyone else.

    The theory goes that if we had beaten Brazil the World Cup was ours. A chance missed? I prefer to look at it as a lesson learned. After all this is still a young side, and the theory prior to Japan/Korea was that it would peak in a few years time. Whatever anyone thinks about that Brazil game (and the tide is starting to turn against the manager) England must persevere with Eriksson. The man that salvaged England from the carnage of the Keegan era, and took England from bottom of their qualifying group to 5-1 in Munich and then to genuine World Cup contenders, deserves that much at least.

    Which brings us to the game in Bratislavia on Saturday. For the opener against Slovakia Eriksson will have back the two high profile absentees of the summer, Steven Gerrard and Gary Neville, the latter hopefully will add significantly to the game of the fit again captain Beckham. Owen is scoring again after a media-induced crisis, but the manager has a tough decision of who to play next to him, Alan Smith of Leeds or Emile Heskey, in whom it seems Eriksson has unlimited if unjustified faith.

    Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell have been ruled out already, the loss of the former meaning we are without the one defender who can pass the ball out of defence. We will still play out of defence you understand. It just might keep landing in the Danube.

    Whatever happens, I don’t expect England to be as defensive as they were in the summer. With all their attacking options fit, England can hopefully rediscover the verve that marked the early part of Eriksson’s reign. Macedonia come to England next week and Turkey lie in wait further down the line, and on paper this group is a lot easier than anything England have been dealt in recent memory.

    From the depths of despair at the final game at Wembley two years ago, when a rubbish Germany beat an even worse England, Eriksson has revamped the squad and now we have a young team capable of going places. The World Cup has gone, we didn’t win it, and there should be no more looking back. In terms of progress, England are back in amongst the elite of world football. Hopefully, the steady progress made so far under Sven will continue to tick forward against Slovakia on Saturday and beyond.



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