Football: Return to France '98 - Hoddle's regrets too few to mention

England coach stands by his decisions and believes he was a kick away from ultimate success
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THERE IS nothing like a heroic failure to blunt the critic's edge. To go down fighting against all odds strikes such a chord in British hearts that it evokes more admiration than a clinically achieved success.

It is a curious habit and one which has brought succour to many a gallant loser from Jim Peters to Nigel Mansell.

Glenn Hoddle's England team were this year's vanquished heroes and, six months on, the memories of summer still bring conflicting emotions. "Not regret, but sadness," said Hoddle when we spoke last week.

This has been a difficult month for the England coach. A dislocated family Christmas is to come, his employers are in turmoil and he has had to endure a series of television programmes raking over England's World Cup defeat to Argentina.

The two remembrances of England's match with Argentina were trying enough, he then had to sit through the BBC's Sports Review of the Year - which featured an electronically created shot of David Batty scoring that penalty.

"That was a bit of a shock," he recalled. "I've had very mixed emotions watching all the programmes. In a way they are great to see but it is very hard to sit and watch. The Argentina match was such an amazing game, that's why they made the programmes. If we had got to the final and lost 3-0 they would not be making programmes like that."

Indeed, any such programme in Brazil will, this Christmas, be more recriminatory than celebratory. Here the fact of defeat has been submerged by its nature.

"People remember our game as the best of tournament, like Italy v Brazil in 1982," Hoddle said. "When I've travelled around since people talk about it and say what a great game it was. It has put us in the minds of people overseas.

"When you are involved in the match it is difficult to appreciate it, you are focused on the game, but when you see the way it unfolded you realise how epic it was. It's then the emotions kick in. You also see how they got every decision."

The most vivid memory is of Michael Owen's goal. When an event is seen so often on television the video images can sometimes supplant those of the moment but Hoddle's mental recollection is still the one he saw from the bench. "From the first touch on the thigh, and the way it opened up, we knew immediately there could be something special happening. It was very similar to the way he got the penalty."

Owen's delayed World Cup entrance was one of the most criticised aspects of England's campaign. Hoddle's similar treatment of David Beckham and his choice of penalty-takers are also regarded, by many, as serious errors.

Hoddle remains as unrepentant now as then.

"At the time Becks was not focused. No one who is not working with a group of players can know that. But he's been magnificent this season, the way he has dealt with the problems of the World Cup.

"It was the same with nursing Michael into the tournament. Look what happened to Ronaldo, he's older and more experienced but he couldn't cope with it. I've been there as a player, I know the pressures, it was the right decision.

"As for the penalties. The four defenders were shattered, David Seaman obviously wouldn't take one, so that left five. Batty was fresh, he was positive. It comes to keeping a cool head, I've been there. It's not about practice it's a mental thing, you have to put everything out of your mind and be very positive."

Then there was the diary. Again, there are no regrets. "Whatever I did there was always going to be someone having a pop. The book is an honest account of what was going through my mind at the time, a lot of people have said to me it is interesting and a lot have said what a lot of rubbish has been written about it.

"I knew there'd be people looking to have a go. I heard some of them got together beforehand and planned it."

Personally I have no knowledge of such a conspiracy though it is not entirely implausible. That Hoddle believes it suggests an embattled mind and, while he is bullish now, he admits he was very low in the wake of England's exit.

"The two to three weeks afterwards were a really bad time for me. I wouldn't say I was distraught but I found it very hard. I didn't do much, just played with my children. Of course, the first thing my son wanted to do when I got back was play penalty shoot-outs. He said: `You're David Seaman, I'm Ronaldo.' It was probably the best thing. If you had written a script, it would have been the perfect ending."

Hoddle had been due to return to France to cover a quarter-final match for television but pulled out. "I said `I can't face it' but I went to the semi-final in Marseilles."

This match, between Brazil and the Netherlands, also went to penalties and Hoddle said: "I wasn't looking forward to it but it was a bit like the hair of the dog. It got me further down the line. You never really get it out of your system but it helped.

"I don't look back on the tournament with regret. It is more a sense of sadness. If we had won that game, and we were so close, the belief in camp would have been such that we could have gone all the way."

This, then, is much as expected. No regrets, just a belief that, despite going out in the second round, England were a penalty, or a referee's decision from winning the tournament.

Not everyone would concur but it is possible. England played some spellbinding football that night in St Etienne and, though the Dutch and Brazilians barred the way, the confidence gained from beating Argentina with 10 men would have been immeasurable.

Instead confidence has ebbed away as the side have stumbled into their European Championship campaign.

"There has been a hangover from the World Cup for many teams," Hoddle said. [Denmark, Spain and Germany are other examples]. Teams like Sweden and Bulgaria could focus on the European Championships. The Czechs, for example, came second in Euro 96, but didn't qualify for the World Cup, and have now started off with a flyer."

England resume their campaign against Poland in March but first face France, also at Wembley. "People said `don't play France' but, with Poland coming up, I wanted us to play at home with the pressure on us. It's a terrific match but, realistically, if we beat the world champions 3-0 and then draw with Poland that's not what I want, I'd rather have the reverse."

Paul Gascoigne may be involved. "I'm delighted he's beginning to address his problems and we are monitoring him over a 12-match period. With his ability he is going to have good games but we are not going to hear when he has an average game."

That suggests Gascoigne will need a lot of good matches to be selected and he may have to sustain his form until April to gain a recall. By then we may be closer to discovering whether Hoddle's England will forever be remembered, like the athlete Jim Peters, for heroic defeat, or, like Mansell, become a success.

Tomorrow

Is Ronaldo still the world's greatest footballer? Richard Williams reports from Milan

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