Monday, October 17, 2005

I’m a colossal coward. Last week I wanted to say that we should all calm down about England being a bit crap recently, that they always make it difficult for themselves in qualification but usually make it through. But I didn’t say that because I was afraid of looking stupid if Poland turned up and beat them 3-0. I could have just written a post saying all that stuff and backdated it but, although I’m a coward, I am at least an honest coward.

England are a hugely inconsistent team and have been for as long as I can remember. Last month I met a friend down the pub who’d been too busy to catch the England-Wales result and I told him that England had won, but played quite badly. He responded that the performance meant nothing as long as England won, because it had no bearing on how they’d play next time. Of course, in the next match England played just as poorly and lost to Northern Ireland but the point remains: nobody would have been surprised if England had romped to victory either. This is the team that can beat Germany 5-1 away and then make heavy weather of beating Albania, the team that gets a scrappy draw with Switzerland and two games later thrashes the Dutch 4-1.

In fact, the most consistent thing about England is their inconsistency, starting tournaments with rubbish performances which then have to be compensated for by stirring victories over more difficult opposition. Any attempt to deviate from the pattern of awkward opening games is brutally punished, such as when they had the temerity to actually try and beat France in Portugal last year. It’s practically a tradition, stretching all the way back to the dull 0-0 draw with Uruguay which opened the 1966 tournament (although I loathe to make facile parallels with England’s only previous World Cup win, which has been hung over the team with such monotonous regularity that it would be easier and less painful to simply club each England player over the head with the Jules Rimet trophy on the occasion of his first cap and get it over with).

Everybody is now fretting over whether this squad, which clearly has good potential, can do themselves justice in Germany next year. Performances in the qualifying stage mean nothing, however. Nor do performances in the friendlies running up to it, nor even the performance in the opening game. We won’t know what their potential really is until the group stage is over, because that’s England for you. But we’ll all fret about it anyway, because we enjoy fretting about the England team. It’s a national pastime in a way that no other aspect of football is, and why the current attempts to marginalise the international game will either fail or ruin it for everybody. Speaking of which, perhaps next week I’ll get around to doing my rant about Arsene Wenger.

Monday, October 10, 2005

It’s hard to imagine reaching the World Cup Finals with less jubilation than England managed on Saturday night, by (a) getting the required result with a wobbly performance, (b) having to wait for another team to lose a game on the other side of the continent and (c) qualifying via a method that involves the use of maths. By the time you’ve gone to BBCi Sport to make sure that the Czechs beat Armenia and Andorra in both matches, you’ve practically forgotten what you were planning to celebrate.

But, ignoring the fact that England could have coasted to qualification if they’d played to their potential in these last three games (I’m sure I’m not the only person who’d like to ignore that), the fine margin by which they’ve made it demonstrates how tough it is to qualify for the World Cup these days. There are several good sides who are seriously looking at missing out on the Finals. Greece, Denmark and Turkey are all in the same group and none have managed to top it, so all of them could be absent. Ireland have suffered a tough draw and the surprising form of Israel, who have been so good that France may have to win a play-off: similarly, Spain have left it to the last game. Although England have grabbed their automatic spot, the Czech Republic deserve to be in Germany too.

Yet think back to when the draw for this qualifying campaign was being made: FIFA was talking about the possibility of cutting the European allocation of berths for the World Cup. To be fair, this is in keeping with the organisation’s laudable policy of broadening the audience of football and making it a truly global game. World Cup participation promotes the sport heavily within the participating nation and brings money and prestige. If all parts of the world are not given a chance to participate in the World Cup at its highest level, then the game’s old powers will dominate forever and the emerging footballing nations will never get a chance to, well, emerge.

There are 32 places available in the finals, and 14 of them – that’s almost half, for those of you who had trouble working out the Czechs’ adjusted points total – go to Europe. Meanwhile, South America – home of many of the greatest footballers ever – is only guaranteed four spots. Is this not unfair?

The answer is that no, it isn’t unfair at all. Around 50 European countries entered qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. That means that well under a third of them get through to the finals. Meanwhile, the South American zone of qualifying comprises just ten teams: four of them get through, and the fifth gets a play-off with the winner of the Oceania Zone (this is always Australia). This means that, in practice, half the teams in South America usually go to the finals. And, to be honest, whilst Brazil are the best team in the world and Argentina are never far off, who else is there? The once-great Uruguay (double World Cup winners) have been mediocre for ages. They’ve missed out on an automatic place this time – the other two spots have gone to Ecuador and Paraguay. There are more than enough places in the South American zone to allow all the worthy teams to qualify.

One area which can make a good case for more places is Africa: four of its five qualifiers will be playing in the World Cup for the first time. This means that Nigeria, Senegal and Cameroon – who have all impressed in previous tournaments – are staying at home next summer. That’s pretty harsh, and possibly needs to be looked at. The fact that Africa has produced some of the world’s best players in recent years (Drogba, Essien) but its national teams have struggled to make an impact at the World Cup suggests that lack of experience is a factor, and this will only be righted by ensuring that the promising teams get to go.

But there are emerging sides in Europe too. Look at Ukraine, who’ve never got to the finals before but have walked through a group which includes the European champions and the third-placed team from the previous World Cup. There are also resurgent teams like Poland, who were one of the world’s great teams in the 1930s but got interrupted by Hitler before they could have a decent shot at a World Cup. Every time one of these teams comes through to qualify, they nudge out a good team who qualified last time. I’m not making a case for Europe to be given more qualifying spots – indeed, it’s good that the qualifying is so fiercely competitive, making the build-up to a World Cup that much more interesting – but I don’t see how you can cut them back much further.

Of course, the more places Europe has, the more chance England have of getting through, so I’ve a vested interest in saying this. But, frankly, if they really are one of about five teams who have a chance to win the World Cup as Eriksson claims, they shouldn’t need any of this best-second-placed-team bollocks anyway. They should be one of the few teams who don’t have to sweat over qualification. Yet somehow we always do. Funny, that.