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
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European Championship Qualifying - The Story So Far
It's not that far away you know. In a mere 482 days
as I write (and yes I've accounted for the fact 2008
is a leap year) the European Championships will kick
off in Austria and Switzerland. With the recent
election for the UEFA Presidency the tournament has
been much in the news - we should at this point say
congratulations to Michel Platini, although his
(vote-grabbing off smaller federations) stance of
taking on the G14 and making reductions to the number
of entrants into the Champions League for the bigger
countries has about as much chance of success as a
sheet of paper blocking the path of a wrecking ball.
Both Platini and Johansson have made encouraging
noises about expanding the European Championships to
24 teams. This I think would be a disaster for a
tournament that is perfectly balanced at present -
sixteen teams is the right number and produces a high
quality first round, just three years ago the Finals
in Portugal gave us the hosts against Spain, a renewal
of the rivalry between the Netherlands and Germany,
France versus England and best of all that epic in
Aveiro between the Czech Republic and the
aforementioned Dutch, probably the best international
match I've ever seen. This, remember, is before we
even get to the drama of the knockout stages.
If we also take into account Euro 2000, the best
international tournament in my football watching
lifetime, then although it's heresy to say it on a
World Cup website this is the highest quality
competition going in international football and it
really doesn't need to be messed with. The theory is
that both Platini and Johansson used the idea
(originally put forth by Scotland, who have only ever
qualified for the Championships twice) to curry favour
with and win votes from the smaller federations in
UEFA, and let's hope that is the case. Asides from
diluting the quality of the football by admitting
eight welterweight teams of modest ambition I'm sure
we all remember the 24-team World Cups of 1982-1994
and the logistical nightmare of getting it to the
knockout phase, whereby a Uruguayan Aussie Rules team
could make the last sixteen in 1986 by bludgeoning
their way to two draws and a defeat, conceding seven
and scoring only twice.
Economics will out I guess, and this ludicrous idea
will probably see the light of day, maybe as early as
the 2012 Championships mooted to be in Italy. Until
then we should enjoy the Championships in 2008 that
are slowly but surely creeping their way into our
sights. The co-hosts certainly should, as Austria
have never qualified for the European Championships
and will be making their first appearance at any
tournament since France 98. The Swiss made one token
appearance in England in 1996, holding the hosts to a
draw before losing to the Netherlands and Scotland.
So who will be joining them for the big jamboree in
central Europe? There are fourteen places up for
grabs, and roughly a third of the way through
qualifying, this is where we stand.
This is the big one - not because the stakes are high,
more for the scale of the group itself with an idiotic
eight teams fighting for two places. That means
fourteen games for every team, the longest qualifying
haul in European history, a big slog with plenty of
time for recovery although Belgium may have blown it
already. They drew with Kazahkstan and lost to Poland
at home in the autumn, coupled with an away defeat to
Serbia means they are staring down the barrel of
failing to qualify for back-to-back international
tournaments for the first time since the Seventies.
Finland are the surprise package so far, topping the
group and unbeaten in five games including a win in
Poland and a draw at home with group favourites
Portugal. With games in hand it still looks set up
for Portugal to come through and qualify with some
ease from this group, although a surprise defeat in
Poland in October has given the Poles hope that they
can make up for their abysmal showing in Germany last
year. Serbia, now independent of Montenegro, were
statistically the worst team in the World Cup but are
ticking along nicely with three wins and a draw.
1.Finland 5 3 2 0 7- 2 11
2.Serbia 4 3 1 0 6- 1 10
3.Poland 5 3 1 1 6- 5 10
4.Portugal 4 2 1 1 8- 3 7
5.Belgium 5 2 1 2 4- 2 7
6.Kazakhstan 5 0 2 3 1- 7 2
7.Armenia 4 0 1 3 0- 5 1
8.Azerbaijan 4 0 1 3 1- 8 1
This group has been all about the resurrection of
Scotland so far - having beaten the Faeroe Islands and
Lithuania they surpassed themselves in October with a
1-0 win over World Cup finalists France. The euphoria
has since been checked with a defeat to the Ukraine
and Walter Smith, the manager behind the
transformation, leaving his post to manage Glasgow
France and Italy resumed hostilities in September with
France gaining a modicum of revenge for their Berlin
heartbreak with a 3-1 win in Paris. Italy have had a
turbulent time since their triumph last July, with
their domestic league imploding as a competition
amidst corruption and violence and the national team
having teething trouble under new manager Roberto
Donadoni. Interestingly the Italians also struggled
after winning the World Cup in 1982, winning only one
game in a doomed attempt to qualify for Euro 84.
Despite their poor start a repeat is unlikely and a
pair of routine wins over the Ukraine and Georgia have
put them back in the picture.
1.Scotland 4 3 0 1 9- 3 9
2.France 4 3 0 1 11- 2 9
3.Italy 4 2 1 1 7- 5 7
4.Ukraine 3 2 0 1 5- 4 6
5.Lithuania 3 1 1 1 3- 3 4
6.Georgia 4 1 0 3 9- 9 3
7.Faroe Islands 4 0 0 4 0-18 0
Welcome to what is essentially the South-Eastern
Europe qualifying zone - plus Norway. This group is
headed by those cheery, good-natured rivals Greece and
Turkey, each having racked up an impeccable three wins
out of three so far. They meet in Athens in March to
decide the group leadership at this early juncture,
shinpads would be a good idea. Turkey thus far have
been playing there home matches in Frankfurt by way of
punishment for the Wild West scenes against the Swiss
Greece of course are the incumbent champions of Europe
after their spectacular run in Portugal four years
ago. One point to note here is that should they
qualify they will automatically be seeded, as will the
hosts Austria and Switzerland, leaving only one seed
required for the remaining group, likely to be Italy
or France. When the draw happens there will be some
very dangerous sharks in the water and a group -
perhaps two groups - of death are virtually assured.
Which is just the way we like it.
This is all conjecture of course and Norway will have
a say in who goes where as they are currently snapping
at the heels of the group leaders. They lost in
Bulgaria in October but had already recorded a 4-1 win
away in Hungary, highlighting their credentials and
also how far from grace the country that spawned
Puskas, Kocsics and Albert has fallen in the last
twenty years. Bosnia/Herzegovina came within a
whisker of the play-offs for the last World Cup but
have collapsed early on here with heavy home defeats
to Hungary (1-3) and Greece (0-4).
1.Turkey 3 3 0 0 8- 0 9
2.Greece 3 3 0 0 6- 0 9
3.Norway 3 2 0 1 6- 2 6
4.Bosnia-Herzeg. 4 1 1 2 8-11 4
5.Malta 3 1 0 2 4- 8 3
6.Hungary 4 1 0 3 5- 8 3
7.Moldova 4 0 1 3 2-10 1
This group is crazy. It's riding round Europe on a
unicycle in a green wig and a big red nose whilst
throwing custard pies in the face of all who watch.
Take away this doggy bag from a veritable smorgasbord
of mad results - Slovakia walloped Cyprus 6-1 in
Bratislava in September, only to be outdone by Germany
four days later when they put thirteen (yes, thirteen)
past San Marino. Expected victories obviously, but
not by those margins. Slovakia followed up their good
start by losing 0-3 to the Czechs, thumping Wales 5-1
in Cardiff and then losing 1-4 at home to Germany.
In October the Irish slumped to their worst ever
defeat by going down 2-5 in Cyprus. Their boss Steve
Staunton looked certain to be sacked but improbably
four days later nicked a home draw with the Czechs,
who had warmed up for the game by blasting San Marino
for seven goals in Liberec. And the Cypriots? Well
they went and lost 1-3 in Cardiff in October but
bounced back in November to draw in their home match
with Germany. Brilliant, illogical madness.
So after an amazing 65 goals in 13 games (putting my
amateur statistician hat on that's an average of five
goals per game - what is this, the 1954 World Cup?),
and despite these huge scorelines Germany and the
Czech Republic predictably lead the way. Joachim Leow
is in effect carrying on the good work of Klinsmann
and the Czechs as yet show no signs of missing the
retired Pavel Nedved. It looks highly unlikely that
either Slovakia, Wales or the Republic of Ireland can
get it together for long enough to stop either making
the short trip to Austria/Switzerland.
NB: Since writing this originally the Republic of
Ireland have narrowly won on a freezing night in San
Marino with a winning goal four minutes into injury
time. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.
1.Germany 4 3 1 0 19- 2 10
2.Czech Republic 4 3 1 0 13- 2 10
3.Ireland 5 2 1 2 10- 8 7
4.Slovakia 4 2 0 2 12- 9 6
5.Cyprus 4 1 1 2 8-12 4
6.Wales 3 1 0 2 5- 8 3
7.San Marino 4 0 0 4 1-27 0
So, what did you think of England in the World Cup?
Limited? Dismal? Shocking? Well my friends,
unbelievably they have become even worse since June.
It started predictably enough - new regime, big win
over Andorra, scrappy win in Macedonia, the 'we'll win
because we're England' hubris back with venom - and
then an awful home draw with Macedonia that they
should have lost followed immediately by a lame
surrender in Croatia where they were thrashed two-nil
and the realisation that this could be a sub-Keegan
England regime comes horribly to the fore.
They won't, but the Football Association should take
the can for this, as by appointing Steve McClaren -
who is guilty of nothing more than ambition but
realistically embodies everything that was wrong in
Germany - when all they had to do was hang on a few
weeks for Luis Felipe Scolari (you know, the bloke who
always gets to the last weekend of an international
tournament), they may well pay a heavy price,
especially with that billion pound Wembley shaped
albatross looming over their heads.
Outside of Team Showbiz Group E is shaping up to be a
close one, currently headed by Croatia who followed up
their win over England with a 4-3 win in Israel, aided
by two goals from Eduardo da Silva. Russia began with
home draws against Croatia and Israel but then beat
Macedonia in Moscow and then away to Estonia. The
theory that they just evaporate when they leave their
own borders will be under scrutiny in 2007.
1.Croatia 4 3 1 0 13- 3 10
2.Russia 4 2 2 0 5- 1 8
3.England 4 2 1 1 6- 2 7
4.Macedonia 5 2 1 2 4- 3 7
5.Israel 4 2 1 1 9- 6 7
6.Estonia 3 0 0 3 0- 4 0
7.Andorra 4 0 0 4 1-19 0
Whilst Group D might be the highest scoring group in
qualifying, Group F is perhaps the most fascinating
and has provided the most eye-catching result in
qualifying so far. When Spain travelled to Belfast
with a routine win over Liechtenstein already under
their belts they expected to flick aside a Northern
Ireland team that had four days earlier been thrashed
at Windsor Park by Iceland. Shades of their David and
Goliath clash in Valencia in 1982, and fantastically
the result went the same way as the Irish won 3-2 with
a hat-trick from David Healey, a striker who plies his
trade with a team in the relegation zone of the
Still reeling, Spain went to Sweden in October and
quite literally rolled over and were comfortably
beaten 2-0, their campaign to qualify already in the
balance. With nine games left there is time to turn
it around and their next game in March at home to
Denmark is crucial - lose that and Luis Aragones will
certainly be sacked. Considering that this
cantankerous old racist shouldn't be in the job
anyway, I can't say I'll shed any tears.
Northern Ireland backed up their win over Spain with
an unlikely draw in Denmark and a home win over Latvia
to keep their interest in this group alive for longer
than most expected. The Irish and the Danes are
locked on seven points in second place and Sweden have
waltzed into an early lead having won all four games.
1.Sweden 4 4 0 0 8- 2 12
2.Denmark 3 2 1 0 6- 0 7
3.Northern Ireland 4 2 1 1 4- 5 7
4.Latvia 3 1 0 2 4- 2 3
5.Spain 3 1 0 2 6- 5 3
6.Iceland 4 1 0 3 4- 8 3
7.Liechtenstein 3 0 0 3 1-11 0
The Dutch lead the way in this group, so presumably
between the World Cup and the Euro qualifiers Marco
Van Basten had a Eureka moment and decided that a
nation with such technically gifted resources should
outplay the opposition rather than try to kick the
living daylights out of them. Not that it has been
all plain sailing for the Dutch - scrappy one goal
wins over Luxembourg and Albania have contributed to
their record of three wins and one draw.
Bulgaria and Romania are also unbeaten at the start of
this group and look set for a three-way fight with the
Dutch for the two available qualifying spots. They
drew 2-2 on the opening match day in Constanta, two
late goals from Martin Petrov securing a result for
the Bulgarians who then went on to record an
impressive 3-0 win at home to Slovenia.
The Slovenians are as good as gone after a 4-2 hiding
at the hands of Belarus a month later, whereas minnows
Luxembourg have proved hard to beat so far, but have
nevertheless been beaten three times.
1.Netherlands 4 3 1 0 7- 2 10
2.Bulgaria 4 2 2 0 7- 3 8
3.Romania 3 2 1 0 7- 3 7
4.Belarus 4 1 1 2 7-10 4
5.Slovenia 3 1 0 2 4- 7 3
6.Albania 3 0 1 2 3- 6 1
7.Luxembourg 3 0 0 3 0- 4 0
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