Football World Cup: Hoddle's genius open to question

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The Independent Online
IN HIS own mind he is the hero or every hour. Even in defeat his self-esteem remains intact. There is evidence that this man is so clever that he may even plan defeats to inject some drama into our sporting lives.

I am, of course, referring to Glenn Hoddle. At the beginning of this tournament I suggested that we might be hailing the England coach as a tactical genius before the month was over. It's too early for a definitive assessment about his coaching ability, but after three matches we can be certain of one thing: Hoddle fancies himself. If Jules Rimet had struck a medal for idle conceit, Hoddle would be the reigning world champion.

Any doubt was dispelled from my mind after England's impressive victory over Colombia on Friday night. Hoddle's players responded excellently to defeat by Romania, their first real World Cup test. Colombia were exposed as a team way past their sell-by date. This task was accomplished in classic Premiership style. The tackling was sharp, opponents were denied time and space to dwell on the ball. Alan Shearer and Michael Owen ran positively into spaces behind their markers, elsewhere the passing and movement was very good.

The game ceased to be a true contest after half an hour when David Beckham curled a magnificent free-kick into the net from 25 yards out. At 23 Beckham has arrived on the international. stage. Because of his treatment by our hero Hoddle, the young Manchester United player was under inordinate pressure on this, his tournament debut.

Hoddle had publicly asserted that Beckham was unprepared for international football when the England squad assembled before going to France. Not content with slagging off his player in public, to justify leaving him on the bench, Hoddle proceeded to claim that after a month with England - with Glenn - the problem was now solved. Good old Glenn, solver of other's problems.

The script as devised by Glenn casts only one hero. So, although Beckham actually struck that wonderful second goal on Friday in Lens, the credit accrues to his crafty coach.

A more modest man might have settled for victory and the reflected glory that goes with it. Modesty is not, however, a concept Glenn is acquainted with. Having taken the credit for restoring Beckham's talent, Glenn reached for more prizes. Questioned about his team selection for the Colombian game, in particular about the decision to start Beckham and Owen, the great man replied that he had been planning all along to introduce Owen and Beckham in the third game.

The tactical genius had spotted that Colombia played with a flat back- four. Hence Beckham's excellent long passing and Owen's extraordinary pace would serve England well. If one did not know that Glenn was a tactical genius, one might be tempted at this stage to regard his statements with suspicion. The implication of his post-game remarks on Friday was clear; Beckham and Owen will be back on the bench unless England's next opponents, Argentina, play with a Colombian style flat back-four.

Of course this will not happen because by kick-off time tonight Glenn will have worked out another rationalisation of the perfectly obvious, that Beckham and Owen are outstanding footballers who merit a place in the England side, which will be presented to us as original tactical thinking.

In Glenn's mind there is no room for the obvious. Football is not really about players, good or bad, rather a game of tactics. He works out the tactics and then slots the players in accordingly. Alas, for Glenn the day or reckoning is coming, in the shape of an Argentinian side that looks ominously good. Fortunately for our hero, Daniel Passarella's team play with something approximating a flat back four. Therefore the tactical genius can select Beckham and Owen and maintain his credibility.

The bad news for Glenn is that Argentina are convincing contenders for this tournament's ultimate prize. A new script will be required in St Etienne tonight.

Argentina have not yet conceded a goal in France. Their team is packed with talent and experience. The mind boggles, reflecting on the pain Gabriel Batistuta, Ariel Ortega, Juan Veron and Claudio Lopez will cause England's back three, not to mention the wing-backs Graeme Le Saux and Darren Anderton.

England can draw some comfort from the record of their footballing encounters with Argentina, which show that only two of the 10 games have been lost. Hope also exists in the form of Carlos Roa, the Argentinian goalkeeper, who looks a touch Weetabix at times.

Also, if you were born yesterday, there is always the prospect that Glenn Hoddle has another tactical ace up his sleeve which will be produced tonight when required. For those, such as this observer, not yet persuaded of Hoddle's genius, a more likely scenario is that England and our hero will be exposed by opposition that looks a different class.

Defeat will not, one fears, unduly perturb Mr Hoddle. After his side lost to Romania, receiving a football lesson in the process, Glenn had no difficulty explaining what went wrong. His players had conceded two bad goals!

Victories are down to Glenn's tactics, defeats to his players deficiencies. After Italy beat England at Wembley in the qualifying series, Glenn shrugged his shoulders and promised things would be OK.

He likes to refer to that defeat as evidence that, even when he's wrong, he's really right. He knew that Italy would fail to beat Poland and Georgia and of course that England would get the point they needed in Rome. He knew that Christian Vieri would miss the chance that fell to him two minutes from the end of the game in Rome.

The impression that our hero is slightly out of touch with reality was confirmed in Lens after Friday's game when, responding to a question which dwelt on the price to be paid for the Romanian defeat and finishing second in the group, to wit a trip to the toughest half of the tournament draw where Argentina, the Netherlands and Brazil waited, Glenn smiled smugly, looked his interrogator in the eye, and replied: "We wanted Argentina."

The man who argued that Michael Owen "wasn't a natural goalscorer" hasn't changed. Unless something curious occurs, he and his boys should be home in time for tea tomorrow.

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