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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England fall flat but France come alive

    In isolation, the incident was England’s World Cup in microcosm. A long hopeful ball chipped up to Wayne Rooney, with his back to goal, marked by two players. There you go Wayne, conjure something out of nothing. His stamp on Ricardo Carvalho’s genitals was a metaphor for the frustration felt at watching England in Germany. Deservedly sent off, England had little choice but to play for penalties, an outcome that seemed likely anyway in a poor match barren of any quality forward play. And when its penalties and England, we all know what happens.

    So Portugal unconvincingly progress into the semi-finals. Prior to the match the teams had mirrored each other quite spookily – three wins and one draw, playing one man up front, six goals scored, only one of those by a striker, and a string of poor performances behind them. A stalemate was almost inevitable. Scolari, without Deco or Costinha, shuffled what was left of his pack and found a winning hand and knocked England out of a quarter-final for the third time in a row. Portugal have been poor all tournament, and their gamesmanship and commitment to diving often leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but this is a results orientated business and Scolari gets results. No wonder the FA tried to hire him.

    England will no doubt use the Rooney red card as a get out – we would have won if he’d stayed on and so forth – but it cannot disguise the fact that a team brimming with confidence little over six months ago just did not turn up in Germany. The injuries to Owen (who produced nothing anyway when fit) and Rooney were a blow but not insurmountable. Rooney recovered in time and how Eriksson must be kicking himself that he did not bring Jermaine Defoe to the tournament. The loss of Owen, and lack of faith in the back-up options of Crouch and Walcott, prompted a formation shift to 4-5-1 that just did not work. It did finally open English eyes to the need for a holding midfield player and the selection of the excellent Owen Hargreaves in this role should continue. The undroppable Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard thus took their misunderstanding of their respective roles twenty yards further forward, yet when a substitution was made yesterday it was not the awful Lampard who got hooked but Joe Cole, England’s best midfielder in the tournament. A coach lives and dies by his decisions. File that one under bizarre.

    Cristiano Ronaldo slotted the winning penalty to put his average team into the semi-finals and send an average one home. England have contributed little to this tournament and, Joe Cole’s dipping volley against Sweden aside, will take no great memories from it. Not playing well and winning is bearable, but the big performance that we were told the players had in them never happened. The overriding emotion is one of emptiness. There is no hand of God to excuse us and no brave battles with Germany and Argentina to be proud of. England fell flat at this World Cup, and when the inevitable DVD of England’s campaign is released in time for Christmas it won’t be flying off the shelves.

    For Portugal a first semi-final in forty years awaits, with Deco and Costinha able to return to a team that is just not clicking up front. You have to be in it to win it though, and Scolari steadfastly refuses to be beaten at the World Cup. It will need all his managerial know-how to turn this bunch of misfiring misfits into world champions, but if he can we may well have to ask if this is the best manager the World Cup has ever known. They may not be playing well but they at least have the chance to rectify that on Wednesday. As impressive as some of Argentina’s performances have been, you don’t get a medal for being knocked out in the quarter-finals.

    Facing them in Munich will be a French team who started out playing even worse than Portugal and England at their nadir but have now cast of their shackles in beating Spain and, last night, Brazil. Central to that victory was the joyous return to form of Zinedine Zidane who turned in the finest individual performance of the World Cup so far. His team-mate Thierry Henry said of him in a recent documentary ‘What he can do with his feet some people can’t do it with their hands. Sometimes when he plays with the ball he looks like he’s dancing.’ Most people, me included, thought that player was no more but he was back to his beautiful best last night, all twinkle-toed and delicate of touch, rolling back the years and evoking memories of his stellar performance in the 1998 final against the same opponents. After one trademark roulette the commentator on English TV cooed ‘Don’t retire, don’t ever retire!’ I’d love to see him do a year in the Premiership, hell if he plays like that it can be for Liverpool and I’ll pay his wages personally.

    This resurgence of Zidane has had a positive effect across the team. Henry now looks a threat, Ribery has overcome his nerves to become a potent attacking weapon and Patrick Viera looks back to his very best. After the slowest of starts France are coming ominously to the boil and now look world champion material, a situation pretty inconceivable three weeks ago. I noted in a previous article that their defence could be their salvation and it was rock solid again last night, and is starting to look like it cannot be breached. Of all the teams playing the 4-5-1 France are its best exponents by way of doing the alarmingly obvious – breaking from midfield to support the lone front man. The positive energy that glows from the French camp is infectious. What a difference a few weeks can make.

    What of Brazil? The FIFA endorsed favourites are heading home after an awful tournament. Their performance has been summed up in the attitude of their two star forwards Ronaldo and Adriano – lazy, sluggish and living off an inflated reputation. The balance of their team has never looked right from the start. The Japan game offered an interesting window into what their best team might be – the electric Robinho on from the start, Cicinho and Gilberto the quick attacking full-backs and Juninho Pernambucano pulling the strings in midfield – yet Parreira never played it again. I said in my last column that Brazil would struggle to score against France with their lack of movement up front, and until Robinho came on they barely troubled them. As usual they benefited from suspiciously generous free-kicks given by a mesmerised referee but they could not make them count. In the end they went out with a whimper, and deservedly so. Ultimately the 2006 team will be remembered as a collection of big names that did not perform, most mystifyingly of all Ronaldinho. Where did he disappear to?

    With England’s exit I am now rendered neutral in allegiance so I can only hope, for the sake of a spectacle, that we see Germany and France in the final. Italy is a tough proposition for the hosts but a negotiable one, and Portugal, with their lack of thrust up front, will have more trouble than Brazil did in opening up the French defence. Regardless of what happens these are the first all-European semi-finals since 1982, and the trophy is now certain to come home to the continent of its birth.



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