England's battle on two fronts

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AFTER ALL the anticipation, some sense of anti-climax was inevitable. Almost two weeks into the tournament we have seen much that is ordinary, little of the sublime, too many so-so matches. Austria v Cameroon, Mexico v South Korea, Bulgaria v Paraguay, for example.

The powerful football nations - Spain excepted - are cruising towards the real tournament which starts next weekend with the second phase, where failure means a bus to the airport and the long journey home.

Nothing I have seen causes me to revise my original opinion that Argentina are the most likely champions. Despite being rather fortunate to beat Japan in their opening game Daniel Passarella's side look the part even when playing well within themselves, to the point of carelessness towards the end of their first game.

Japan proved game and admirably fluent. Although a minor football power, the Japanese played the game intelligently, passing and moving in a manner that puts much Premiership football to shame. The same can be said of Paraguay, who almost embarrassed Spain in St Etienne on Friday night.

In stark contrast to Japan and Paraguay, Norway have declined to play the game as it should be played, reminding us of nothing so much as an average Premiership side on tour.

It would be good for football, and this World Cup, if Brazil give Egil Olsen's men a spanking tomorrow in Marseilles. And of course victory for Brazil will help Scotland's cause which, thanks to the demeanour of their coach Craig Brown, his players and their fans, is acquiring a certain nobility.

However it is England's match against Romania in Toulouse tonight that commands more immediate fascination. As I write Toulouse is tense but peaceful. By the time your newspaper is delivered, that may have changed.

How to cope with the travelling English hooligans has, sadly, preoccupied the host nation since Marseilles a week ago. As always, it seems, authority can only summon anguish, and new measures, when faced by the challenge of English blaggards. Should Toulouse, and subsequently other host cities, endure the trauma of Marseilles last weekend then serious questions might be asked about English participation in international football competitions.

Is it really acceptable given all we know, all that has been inflicted on the citizens of Dublin, Rome, Marseilles, that English hooligans should be allowed to blight the pleasures of all unfortunate enough to cross their path? Of course not.

The sardonic arrogance of Alan Clark, a former government minister, who believes that the hooligans are merely being English in the traditional sense can be dismissed as a yobbish wind-up. More profoundly depressing is the hand-wringing of the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, as he talks of increasing prison sentences to six months.

Why not six years? As things stand the English hooligan is a man to be reckoned with. The attention of the international media and politicians such as Clark and Straw provide a considerable psychological boost to his ego.

More status is conferred by the erection of the stage on which our hooligan friends perform; the vast security operation created at great expense involving international police forces across the continents. By such means the English hooligan is gratified, noticed, indeed institutionalised. Why not simply stop known terror-spreaders travelling? And those who offend should go to prison for years rather than months when they are caught. More outbreaks of this English disease would be intolerable.

To blame Fifa for failing to ensure a proper allocation of match tickets is to miss one point. The behaviour of English fans is England's responsibility, not Fifa's. International football's governing body does, however, have the obligation of ensuring that cities hosting their games - and fans attending those games - can enjoy the experience free of fear.

Bearing that in mind, trouble in Toulouse, or elsewhere during this tournament, must pose questions about England's future participation in international football. In the arena England made a very impressive start against Tunisia. Glenn Hoddle's critics are wrong to seek success by reference to Tunisia's apparent inadequacies. England never allowed Tunisia the time and space to play.

Forcing the pace, passing and moving with conviction and purpose, creating and then taking their chances, England's was the most striking World Cup debut of any contending nation.

One performance will not dissolve reservations about Glenn Hoddle's modus operandi. His critics are, however temporarily, on the back foot. Hoddle's most contentious decision preference for Darren Anderton over David Beckham, while not being vindicated, was rendered irrelevant by a splendid team performance. Paul Scholes was outstanding. Alan Shearer menacingly aggressive as always. Graeme Le Saux tackled crisply and delivered beautifully flighted crosses. Paul Ince and David Batty comfortably controlled midfield. Gazza could be forgotten, a sideshow.

Tonight the Romanians will provide a sterner test of England's players and in particular the Hoddle system: 3-5-2. Tunisia's fleeting opportunities allowed one glimpse where better sides may hurt England, down the gullys, in behind the wing-backs where there is too much space.

An ageing team, with dodgy morale, Romania still field players of sufficient quality and experience to pose substantial questions. Adrian Ille, Marius Lacatus, Dan Petrescu and that old rogue Gheorghe Hagi will not exactly be spoiling for a fight, but there is enough guile and ability in this Romanian team to provide us with a true measure of England's potential. Alas, as far as the English are concerned, the merit of their team is only part of the story.

As I conclude this piece, the voice of Graham Kelly echoes in the background assuring, in plaintive tone, a television news reporter in Toulouse that things are tense but OK. The hope is that that is true.

That sport will be tomorrow morning's front page story cannot be held with any real conviction. 3-5-2 may be the least of England's troubles.