Football: Time for England veil to be lifted

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The Independent Online
THE veil goes up on Glenn Hoddle's World Cup preparations today as he begins the final phase of England's build-up. This afternoon, at Wembley, Hoddle should field the core of the team he wants to start the finals against Tunisia in Marseilles on 15 June, together with a number of players who either have to prove their fitness or need matches to regain it.

Coming into both categories is Paul Gascoigne who, having nearly skewered himself with a series of further indiscretions, will, as so often, be the centre of attention. Darren Anderton will not be far behind, but Jamie Redknapp will not be in contention. He withdrew from the squad yesterday with a knee injury. Redknapp added that he had been invited to travel with the England party to the finals by Hoddle.

The World Cup 22 will be named on 2 June and, with the likes of Gianfranco Zola, David Ginola and Juninho already set to miss out on France 98, few are taking a place for granted. With Ian Wright, Les Ferdinand and Tim Flowers also needing matches, and the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Rob Lee, Dion Dublin and Phil Neville still with much to prove, the team-sheet could be as interesting as the match.

That should be a one-sided affair. Saudi Arabia did draw with England in Riyadh 10 years ago and have just qualified for their second successive World Cup, but they are not a strong side. The Riyadh match was against a disjointed England team, featuring five debutants, during a low period of Bobby Robson's management. It did include Tony Adams, who scored, and David Seaman, who made a disappointing debut, but Wembley, prior to a World Cup, should be a different matter.

The Saudis' warm-up programme has included a series of undistinguished displays including narrow wins over Namibia and Australia, a draw with Iceland, 3-0 home defeats to Germany and Brazil and a 5-0 drubbing, also in Riyadh, by Mexico. That match, in the Intercontinental Cup in December, was the last before Carlos Parreira, who coached Brazil to victory in the last World Cup, took over on a pounds 2m contract.

As that deal illustrates, even the Premiership is penurious compared to the oil-rich kingdom and it is this wealth which has raised doubts about the fixture's arrangement.

The official line is that the Saudis, having a similar style to Tunisia, are ideal opponents. However, England fly to the Mediterranean on Monday to play Morocco, who are even more similar to their north African neighbours, on Wednesday. This would appear to make the Saudi match, already unlikely to tell us much about the England players' form and international capability, even less worthwhile.

Since England are not short of requests for Wembley friendlies the fixture has given rise to a number of rumours, most notably that it was arranged at the request, or at least the prompting, of the Government. New Labour has been very helpful over the World Cup 2006 bid. It is also eager to maintain the valuable but sensitive relationship with Saudi Arabia.

This suggestion has been categorically denied by the Football Association and it is true that the fixture was arranged before the Morocco one, and that there is a precedent for having an undemanding friendly before a major tournament - a Hong Kong Select XI and non-League Aylesbury have been previous opponents.

Nevertheless, it appears a special visit. Opposing delegations are usually treated to a pre-match lunch at a West End hotel. The Saudis were instead guests at the Guildhall, the City of London's most prestigious venue, last night. Tonight they host a reciprocal function at the Dorchester. No doubt further trade negotiations, following a recently concluded pounds 20bn arms deal, will be facilitated.

Coincidentally, 12 hours before the Saudi team flew into Heathrow on Thursday, the two British nurses, who have been released early from their prison sentences in a Saudi jail, arrived at Gatwick.

Assuming he did want the fixture none of this should trouble Hoddle - with Gascoigne, faith healers and marketing rows he has enough diplomatic problems with football. A side issue is how England's players react to Paul Durkin's refereeing tuition, but the main thing is the result and performance. For a number of reasons the convincing victory England are very capable of would be very welcome.

ENGLAND (Possible, 3-5-2): Flowers; G Neville, Adams, Campbell; Anderton, Batty, Gascoigne, Ince, P Neville; Sheringham, Wright.