England left in lurch

Ian Ridley reports on further frustration for Terry Venables's plans
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S scheduled international match against Croatia at Wembley next month has been called off following the escalation of the war in the former Yugoslavia. The FA are now looking to South America - either Colombia or Bolivia - or Egypt to fill the void.

"The government was understandably unable to give guarantees that at some point over the next two and a half weeks they would not be forced to advise a cancellation," said the FA's chief executive, Graham Kelly. England still hoped, he added, to play Croatia before next summer's European Championship finals in England.

It became increasingly clear last week that the match was in danger and the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, Gordon Taylor, voiced fears that it would be inappropriate to play the match. Ten days ago, a BBC journalist, John Schofield, was killed near Bihac by a bullet believed to have come from a Croatian gun. There have also been reports of Croatian atrocities and as well as moral concerns, there were also worries that the match could be disrupted by demonstrators.

The postponement is another setback to the England coach Terry Venables's preparations for next summer following the cancellation of a game against Germany on Hitler's birthday last year and the hooliganism- curtailed match against the Republic of Ireland in February. "What is important is that we have a game of top-class quality and I believe we will," Venables said yesterday.

Croatia, at present one of Europe's most exciting teams with players of the calibre of Davor Suker, of Sevilla, Robert Prosinecki, of Barcelona, Alen Boksic, of Lazio, and Milan's Zvonimir Boban in their number, are well placed to qualify, leading their group ahead of Italy, whom they beat 2-1 in Palermo.

England's problems, however, are as nought compared to the crisis facing France, in serious danger of not qualifying for the 1996 tournament after a 1-1 home draw with Poland. Already missing the suspended Eric Cantona, now they have serious doubts over Patrice Loko, whose present disturbed mental state reflects the confusion in the national team.

France's draw had echoes of England's game against the Poles in 1973 - the goalkeeper in Andrzej Wozniak enjoyed an inspired night. Until the 87th minute, when Youri Djorkaeff, Paris St Germain's signing from Monaco, curled in a free-kick. It was France's first match in the Parc des Princes since their traumatic last-minute 2-1 defeat by Bulgaria that cost them a place at the 1994 World Cup finals.

"Le Retour des Nuls," was the headline in the sports newspaper L'Equipe; evoking France's four previous draws in their group (all goalless) and making a passing reference to Les Nuls, a Pythonesque comedy troupe in France. Newcastle's David Ginola was lacking match practice and only a peripheral figure, and so the French were desperately short of an influential presence. Missing through injury were Jean-Pierre Papin and Laurent Blanc.

And Loko. His is one of the saddest stories in European football; one to rival the news last week that Marco van Basten has finally been forced to retire because of a persistent ankle injury. This summer Milan signed the Liberian virtuoso George Weah from Paris St Germain as his replacement for pounds 3.5m. In turn, PSG paid Nantes pounds 2m for a player who has surprised in all the wrong ways.

Loko, whom Kevin Keegan watched last season before settling on Les Ferdinand, began behaving out of his normally reserved character in pre-season training. He called another of PSG's new signings, the Panamanian Dely Valdes, "lazy" to his face, insisted that nobody use his personal water bottle and refused to sign autographs for children.

The night after helping his team to a 2-2 draw in their opening match against Bastia,Loko went to Nantes to see his old team-mates, whom he had helped to the title last season. On the plane back to Paris, he began behaving boorishly, insulting passengers, and a PSG official was summoned to meet him at the airport. Loko gave him the slip, however, and ended up at a night-club, where he was alleged to have assaulted a doorman, smashed up his own car and damaged another. Then, in police custody, he exposed himself to a woman officer.

Upon returning briefly to training a few days later, Loko was clearly still troubled and has since been receiving treatment at a psychiatric hospital near Paris. Earlier in the summer there were reports that he was mixing with drug-users in St Tropez and that the woman for whom he left his wife was using voodoo to try to help him communicate with his child, who died as a toddler 18 months ago.

Loko is due to appear in court on 1 September, which would probably make him unavailable for France's home match against Azerbaijan five days later. The hope is that he, like Cantona, will be ready for the crucial 11 October match in Romania. Scotland, with their 1-0 win over Greece, and the Republic of Ireland, who benefited from Latvia's win over Austria, now look likely to qualify and add domestic spice. But should France fail, the tournament without Cantona, Ginola and Loko would be short of a few important ingredients.