Football: New England, new respect

Ian Ridley says Glenn Hoddle's team have been the talk of Le Tournoi
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The Independent Online
English football is enjoyed all over the world for its naked excitement; crash, bang, wallop, what a television picture. In the past week it seems it has been enjoyed by more than viewers, however. Foreign coaches and commentators, even if grudgingly at times, now appear to be sparked into some admiration.

"Chics, ces Anglais," read the headline - hinting ironically at a crass reputation - in the French daily sports newspaper L'Equipe the day after the 2-0 win over Italy. This for a team containing Martin Keown and Stuart Pearce. Indeed England's unexpected sense of style has impressed many of the sophisticates at Le Tournoi.

The performance and similar result in Poland eight days ago illustrated the progress advanced by Glenn Hoddle after Terry Venables. A change, a modernisation, of approach has been coming. As England flew home from Katowice that night a contented Paul Ince walked the aisle sipping moderately at a small white. "Italy's changed Ince," someone said. "He used to drink bottles of beer; now he drinks bottles of wine."

Beyond the counter-attacking of that match in the Chorzow stadium came the retention of possession against the Italians, cleverly pulling opponents out of position until the moment was right to hit the spaces vacated, as did the remarkable Paul Scholes in creating the first goal for Ian Wright.

It is some time since an English team out-thought and outmanoeuvred an Italian one. Their coach Cesare Maldini was not in generous mood. "We were punished for our mistakes," he said. "We were also unprepared, while the English came here after 15 days together and honed by a competitive match." He went on to whinge that the Italian Federation should have turned down the invitation, as the Germans had done.

"Our championship finished only last Sunday and it is difficult for players to perform a few days after that," he added. "I concede that our tactical plan was overcome, but when you can't run, you can't carry out any plan." It ignored any tiredness of the English themselves, whose championship is four games longer, or any emotional fall-out from Poland.

It sounded like damning with faint praise but for all the minimising of the blow, one sensed that Maldini was covering up a favourable impression. There appeared genuine concern that a team nearer full strength than were England had succumbed so limply. It will have also crossed his mind that the psychological advantage was now with his side's opponents for the potentially epic encounter to decide Group Two of World Cup qualifying in Rome on 11 October.

Hoddle will surely not be fooled for the more demanding competitive task ahead but is entitled to glow quietly at English technique and tactics being taken seriously in such company. If such a victory can be achieved with understudies in most positions, what is the potential of the most experienced?

He will also have learnt much, even after one game of the tournament, about the depth of his squad, with the Manchester United pair of Paul Scholes and Phillip Neville particularly rising to the occasion. He will have seen from David Beckham's often visionary passing that he is ready for a central midfield role. Hoddle will be encouraged to know that piercing one of the world's best defences does not necessarily require Paul Gascoigne.

The Brazilian coach Mario Zagallo and his French counterpart Aime Jacquet have both been sceptical about the English game in the past. Zagallo has, after all, omitted Juninho while Jacquet always contended that the achievements of Eric Cantona and David Ginola in Manchester and Newcastle were no qualifications for selection.

"I liked England," said Zagallo on Thursday morning. "When they scored they grew." Jacquet's summation said simply: "They left a good impression on me after this match." It is probably as it should be; men overboard not just yet.

It was left to Rene Simoes, now coach of Jamaica after once being in charge of Brazil's Under-18 and 20 teams, and who is travelling with the Brazilian squad at Le Tournoi, to wax most lyrical. "This is the first time I have cheered for England," he said, "because this is really football. Imagine that team with Alan Shearer."

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