Night of the grand illusions

Road to 2004: Relief for hosts as the fans quell fears of violence, but for rival managers the old questions remain
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"This was an important game and test for everybody and people will feel very positive about Euro 2004." The speaker the morning after Wednesday night's late show of a football match in Faro might have been England's head coach but was in fact the country's first football attaché.

"This was an important game and test for everybody and people will feel very positive about Euro 2004." The speaker the morning after Wednesday night's late show of a football match in Faro might have been England's head coach but was in fact the country's first football attaché.

Gary Fisher, 33, does not look or sound like a standard-issue diplomat - probably an advantage in his new role - but he has worked for the Foreign Office in postings as diverse as Beijing, Dusseldorf and Bahrain. Now he finds himself at the British Embassy in Lisbon doing all he can to ensure that English fans do not disgrace themselves in Portugal this summer during what he claims is "the biggest mass movement of Britons overseas". Deducing the numbers involved is an inexact science, but best guess at present suggests that 50,000 supporters will be actively seeking to watch England games, in addition to the 200,000 Brits on holiday in the country.

It would be a major logistical exercise even if English fans were respected and adored by the world. Sadly, they are not. Previous European Championships, because of their proximity to home and the high concentration of potential foreign trouble-makers, have often been the focus of embarrassment.

During the qualifying tournament, Uefa left the Football Association in no doubt that serious incidents would result in expulsion - of the team, not just the offenders. Hence the decision not to take tickets for games in Macedonia and Turkey, and a certain amount of concern about the first away match since then, against the Euro 2004 hosts.

Throw in understandable nervousness on the part of the Portuguese authorities about the opening night of a new stadium for such a high-profile fixture, and by Wednesday evening there was an air of apprehension in the chilly Algarve air. It proved illusory. A dozen undesirables had been prevented from entering the country but up to 4,500 English followers were allowed to do so, joining half as many expats, timeshare owners and half-term families in the ground. If their going in and, in particular, their coming out was a little slower than might have been hoped, that was hardly a new experience for fans. They bore it all with unusually good grace, neglecting to jeer the opposition's national anthem, and singing nothing more contentious than "Rule Britannia".

Hence the favourable verdict on the whole exercise from a relieved Fisher: "I've spoken to the police, tourist board and fans," he said. "Perhaps there were small lessons to be learnt - getting out of the ground wasn't perfect - but it was the first big test for the stadium.

"The message from the Portuguese police has been that they don't want to treat visiting fans any differently. Call it 'softly, softly' or whatever, it worked and they're delighted. They've been to games regularly in the UK and came to the conclusion that the right thing to do was a low-profile approach. They seem to have no fear of England fans and want to treat them as tourists. And they're used to having two million a year of those."

The tournament director, Antonio Laranjo, was even more generous in his praise: "The atmosphere of fair play both inside and outside the stadium between the Portuguese and English fans was great. We had a great experience with the English fans in Eindhoven, when Portugal beat England 3-2. The Portuguese team left the pitch to a standing ovation from the English fans. The fans behaved in a fantastic way then, as they did for the last World Cup, this week and as we expect for the coming tournament. This shows the English fans as one of the best in the world."

Although some England followers will head for the coast nearer Lisbon, where two of the three group matches will now be played, a majority are expected to combine football with a stay in the south. A permanent Fans' Embassy, which was a successful feature of the World Cup in Japan, will be set up somewhere in the Algarve, with a mobile one closer to the match venues.

As 2,000 supporters are now subject to banning orders, there is genuine confidence that the excesses that disfigured places such as Turin, Dusseldorf, Malmo, and Charleroi at previous tournaments can be avoided. Segregation is an inevitable worry, exacerbated by tickets being available on the internet, but it helps that none of England's group opponents (France, Switzerland and Croatia) have any reputation for warring fans.

What of the football? As ever with modern international friendlies, reliable conclusions are limited by the sort of game whose scoreline might have read: "Portugal 1 England 1 - Portugal won 10-9 on substitutions". In two games against the Portuguese with Sven Goran Eriksson and Luiz Felipe Scolari in charge, 37 substitutes have been used. Sending on the last three of them (Jamie Carragher, Owen Hargreaves and Jermaine Jenas) with four minutes to play would have suggested self-parody if carried out by a wackier manager than Eriksson.

Convincing performances by Gareth Southgate and the previously derided Ledley King made a mockery of pre-match headlines about "England farce" and confirmed that there is never such a thing as a completely meaningless friendly; it is just that Eriksson feels so constrained by obligations to leading club managers that the meaning is sometimes obscured.

There was confirmation too of other suspicions: that Alan Smith would provide a vigorous alternative were any of the four first-choice strikers again injured; and, less positively, that Frank Lampard, for all his outstanding work with Chelseathis season, is no more comfortable in left midfield than his club-mates Joe Cole and Scott Parker, or anyone else Eriksson has tried.

Cole says he will not be a complete player until he proves himself at a major tournament, but on current form he will get no more opportunity than his 16 minutes in Japan. If England are forced to abandon their diamond for a more conventional midfield four, as they were on Wednesday, the hole on the left becomes even more gaping. Another chance to see whether Celtic's Alan Thompson could fill it in his natural position has been lost, and only one game remains, away to Sweden on 31 March, before the squad is named on 17 May.

Portugal meanwhile look like one of those host countries who will go a certain distance on patriotic fervour but not all the way. The 10 hugely impressive tournament stadiums (seven of them new) need only fine-tuning; Scolari, like Eriksson, still has work to do with nuts and bolts.

Portugal bound Definitely maybe

The certainties
David James (Manchester City)
Paul Robinson (Leeds Utd)
Gary Neville (Manchester Utd)
Wayne Bridge (Chelsea)
Sol Campbell (Arsenal)
John Terry (Chelsea)
Ashley Cole (Arsenal)
David Beckham (Real Madrid)
Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)
Nicky Butt (Manchester Utd)
Paul Scholes (Manchester Utd)
Frank Lampard (Chelsea)
Michael Owen (Liverpool)
Wayne Rooney (Everton)
Emile Heskey (Liverpool)

The probables
Chris Kirkland (Liverpool)
Phil Neville (Manchester Utd)
Jonathan Woodgate (Newcastle)
Owen Hargreaves (Bayern Munich)
Joe Cole (Chelsea)
Gareth Southgate (Middlesbrough)
Darius Vassell (Aston Villa)
Kieron Dyer (Newcastle)

The possibles
Ian Walker (Leicester City)
Danny Mills (Leeds/Middlesbrough)
Glen Johnson (Chelsea)
Jamie Carragher (Liverpool)
Wes Brown (Manchester Utd)
Matthew Upson (Birmingham)
Ledley King (Tottenham)
Jermaine Jenas (Newcastle)
Scott Parker (Chelsea)
Jermain Defoe (Tottenham)
Alan Smith (Leeds Utd)

The improbables
Alan Thompson (Celtic)
Gareth Barry (Aston Villa)
Danny Murphy (Liverpool)
James Beattie (Southampton)
Rio Ferdinand (Manchester Utd)