Football: Giggs targets the cream of Europe

Old Trafford's Welsh wonder is ready to take the Champions' League by storm, after a frustrating summer watching his mates show off in France.
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LIKE MARIO Kempes, Paolo Rossi and Maradona before them, Zinedine Zidane and Marcel Desailly confirmed their niche in the game's history this summer, performing with distinction at the highest level of all.

It is, George Best recently told his authorised biographer, a source of "enduring regret" that he never had the opportunity to do the same. One of the better pretenders to the Ulsterman's Old Trafford crown knows the feeling. While this weekend's resumption of hostilities, just 26 days since the French celebrated on the Champs-Elysees, may be too soon for some, Ryan Giggs cannot wait to start.

The nearest Giggs came to the World Cup was some PR work for Reebok in Paris during the tournament. Promoting boots is not quite the same as using them but, at just 24, it already appears this will be as close as he will get to the game's premier tournament. Bobby Gould may claim he saw "fear" in his opposing managers' eyes when Wales were drawn with Denmark and Italy in qualifying for Euro 2000, but the reality is that the Principality is unlikely to reach a major tournament ever again. Like Best, Giggs will have to be content with showing his greatness on the club stage.

"It is disappointing to miss out," said Giggs when we met. "Obviously every footballer wants to play in the World Cup and I'm no different. It is just something I have to come to terms with. It's going to be difficult for Wales. I hope that we get there some day, but with the seeding system as it is we always get two hard teams in the group."

Giggs, who confirmed that despite playing for England schools he was never eligible for the England team, starts his season at Wembley in the Charity Shield tomorrow. Then, on Wednesday, Manchester United are due to open their Champions' League campaign.

As it did with Best, Europe provides Giggs' main chance of making a permanent mark on the game. "I always look forward to playing in Europe," he said. "It does have similarities to playing for your country, you face opposition from different countries. It is odd having to qualify for the league stage, we are so used to being champions."

Does it devalue the tournament? "If we get to the semi again, we won't be thinking about having had to qualify."

This season offers extra motivation for Giggs with the arrival of Jesper Blomqvist from Milan. The Swedish international offers the first competition for Giggs' place on the left-wing since Lee Sharpe's best years. It has been mooted that Giggs will be given a different role to accommodate Blomqvist, but Giggs is in no mood to move.

"My favourite position is still left wing," said Giggs. "My main asset is running at people and it gives me the opportunity to do that. You can get isolated, but at United we've always played 4-4-2 and given the wingers, whether me and Andrei [Kanchelskis] or me and Becks [David Beckham], plenty of service.

"I do enjoy playing midfield as you do get more involved, and I can play up front. When I first came to United I'd always played left wing, then they played me up front and I played there most of the time in the youth team. Playing in different positions gives you an extra dimension, but I don't think I'll go as far as playing at the back. I wouldn't want to mark Duncan Ferguson."

A third motivation for Giggs, and his team-mates, is the sour memory of their empty-handed season. Already something of an elder statesman at United, he is one of just three players [along with Peter Schmeichel and Denis Irwin] from 1991-92 when United lost the championship to Leeds. Alex Ferguson regards that disappointment as the making of the subsequent years of plenty and Giggs believes last season will have a similar effect - just as the barren 1994-95 season was followed by a second double.

"The manager always says you need disappointments, it makes you a better player. It was certainly the case after Leeds. Some of the young lads in the team have never lost before and I think they'll come back stronger players.

"We had injuries last year but just didn't win enough games. Arsenal's run at the end of the season was exceptional, I would watch their games on television and think `they'll slip up this time' but they never did."

One of the crucial injuries was the hamstring problem suffered by Giggs against Derby just before the European semi. The irony was that it ended his first season of full fitness in several years and he was in rampant form. "I was flying," he recalled, "it was so disappointing to get injured at such an important stage."

Giggs' end-of-season mood was not helped by various tabloid allegations about his personal life which have continued during the summer, though he is currently in a settled relationship. Such is football's profile, this intrusive attention now goes with the territory, and Giggs has reluctantly learned to live with it.

"It doesn't affect my life now, but at 18 it was difficult to come to terms with. The thing I found difficult was people writing stuff about your love life and family. You wonder why, but you get used to it. I know where to go now, where you get hassled, where not.

Several of Giggs' partners have been high profile themselves, like Danni Behr. Other examples are Beckham's relationship with "Posh Spice", Victoria Adams, and Jamie Redknapp's marriage to another pop singer, Louise. Other young stars, like Owen and Paul Scholes, are with former schoolfriends who knew them before they were famous.

"It's about trust," said Giggs. "It is difficult to meet partners and you can see why sometimes girlfriends are also famous. You know they are not after you for anything and you are both used to the attention. So many girls out there are just money-grabbers, so you've got to be careful.

"My friends are people who I used to go to school with, people I've known since I was nine or 10. It helps that I've grown up in the area. I've never moved [his new house is in north Manchester, near his mother, rather than in the traditional Cheshire footballer belt] or changed my lifestyle."

His contentment, and the rise of the Premiership, means a move abroad is unlikely. "You don't need to now. A few years ago Italy was the place to go, but now there are teams in the Premiership quite capable of winning European trophies. I'm at a big club with lots of good young players, why move?" United's own attempt to strengthen the side has - Blomqvist apart - foundered. This is perceived as being partly through Ferguson's reluctance to break the wage structure. Would Giggs have wanted parity if a Batistuta, Kluivert or Salas had come in on huge wages. "I'm not bothered what anybody else is earning, as long as you are happy, that's it. Besides, a lot of stuff in the papers is exaggerated."

This may well be true. Giggs has a number of endorsements but retains an agent of the old school and a level head. He can be a challenging interviewee because he's done it so often and, not being garrulous by nature, gives little away.

But after a while he does relax, laughing self-consciously at the suggestion that he might have done the restoration of his new house himself and more wryly when asked if, had he failed as a footballer, he would really be a flower seller on the Cardiff bypass, as his boots' adverts suggest.

While on the subject [the interview has, after all, been set up by Reebok, which is the only way you get 30 minutes with a star as high in the football firmament as Giggs these days] he stresses the right boots do make a difference though they will not, he adds with a pitying look, turn a bad player into a good one. His biggest weakness, he says, is his finishing, which few would disagree with. As a person it is that he gets bored easily though, with age, he has `become more patient and take things in my stride more than I used to.'"

His strengths on the field are obvious - quick feet, good balance and pace. There is another, equally important facet. "Look at his work-rate," notes Terry Venables. "With his talent he could be one of those players who just stands around, but he knows that way he will not win things. The work he puts in is fantastic. What a great example to young players."

And so to this season. Said Giggs: "Arsenal will be our main challengers and Chelsea have made some good signings - but we know if we play to our capabilities we could win it easily."