Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Another guest column today from Jim Smith (not the former Oxford United manager, I should add).

Sven-Goran Eriksson is an odd manager; one clearly more suited to league football than cup football (which is odd, 'cos international football is about winning cups and it's an international job he's doing), as shown by the way England handle themselves in qualifying and group stages, grinding out mostly wins, the occasional draw and the odd infrequent loss, totting up the points and being on top at the end. They then bottle it in the knock out games 'cos of the conservative way they often play.

We have much to be grateful to Eriksson for. His record is excellent (four competitive match loses, one of those on penalties, three quite easily achieved qualifications, three quarter finals) and he's made England a team that punch at their natural level, top ten if not top spot. One does have to suspect that Sven doesn't have the sheer nous and/or ruthlessness to tactically improvise sufficiently to overturn a game that his team are chasing, that he can't go the final yard. He lacks that which O'Neill, Saint Jose, Scolari and Hiddinck have. What Venables had. In that respect, the naysayers are right - he lets his players down there and he has stayed too long, but what he brought to England when he came in - organisation, efficiency, solid defending, a team spirit that goes beyond blind, stupid, ranting patriotism, shouldn't be forgotten. We thought he was mad when he said 'win the group' was his plan in the 2002 qualifiers, but win the group he did despite Keegan's lousy one point from six in the first two games. (Remember when Keegan played Gareth Southgate in midfield? What the Diego Forlan was all that about?)

I'm 100% certain that Portingale and Argentina fans (not to mention the Swedes or Mexicans or the Dutch) would much rather have ground out a 1 - 0 win in 93 minutes than fought the games they did instead and while I don't think that England will beat Portugal, it's something they are capable of. The worst thing about Britain (and I do mean Britain, not England, although the English are more guilty of this than the Scots in my experience) is an absolute inability to be moderate and balanced. Everything is amazing or shit. Doctor Who (according to its fans) is either in the middle of a golden age and everyone loves it or it's the worst thing ever and the ratings have collapsed. Tony Blair is either the most popular prime minister of all time, or he needs assassinating. England are either a brilliant team who should win everything and keep being robbed or they're lucky, fluky bastards who are overpaid, stupid and smug - and Ecuador are either really underrated, were brilliant against Poland, only lost to Germany 'cos they played their reserves and were going to really hurt England, or they're the weakest team in the last sixteen and even then England only just beat them. Where's the balance?

The British find enthusiasm embarrassing (actually, we find most things embarrassing) and I think that can be quite a good thing, because strident pride and nationalism and anger are a bit pish and lame, but relentless self-eviscerating cynicism isn't any better, really, and that's what a lot of the supposedly smarter end of the UK media do: substitute an embarrassed, off-hand, self-mocking and bet-hedging stance for the equally vile tabloid boldness and call it balance, but it isn't balance at all. It's a diametrically opposite but equally ludicrous position.

England are in the last eight. It's about right. That's our level. Not as good as Argentina, better than Sweden or America. About as good as Germany. For anything better than that, you need a bit of luck and luck is one thing this England side have always been short of. It must be encouraging to have got there without playing to the level that they can, surely? The worry is that maybe they'll never quite cohere and become the sum of their parts. With Rooney, Beckham, Gerrard and Lampard all being players that can change a game all by themselves you'd expect this squad to catch fire. But they haven't, and they probably won't, but they might.

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