Superpowers stumble on road to Portugal

England, Italy, Germany and Spain struggle to qualify for next summer's showpiece as former makeweights refuse to accept old order

When Sven Goran Eriksson sends his team back into competitive action in Macedonia on 6 September the prevailing domestic mood, from air-conditioned newspaper offices to sweaty public bars, will be "England expects". There will be a similar belief in football's natural order in Germany, where the World Cup finalists will be expected to triumph in Iceland. So, too, in Italy, where the Azzurri will be seeking revenge over Wales, and in Spain, where the national team will be preparing for a visit by Ukraine.

But Rudi Völler, Giovanni Trapattoni and Inaki Saez know, like Eriksson, that in the modern world nothing can be assured. The tumult of the World Cup, where Italy and Spain were both guillotined in the uprising of football peasantry spearheaded by South Korea, has not abated. Brazil and Germany, in reaching the final in Yokohama, may have suggested the rebellion was underpowered. Subsequent results prove it has not been quelled.

From Africa, where Rwanda caused the shock of a generation in knocking Ghana out of the Nations Cup, to France, where Brazil were humiliated in the Confederations Cup, the cliché that there are no easy games in international football has started to become a truism.

Of course there are exceptions. In Group Four of the Euro 2004 qualifiers San Marino conceded 19 goals without reply in the four ties played this year. In Group One France have put a traumatic World Cup behind them. Five straight wins have pencilled in their place in Portugal next summer. Mostly though, from Torshavn to Baku, nothing has been guaranteed.

Not that expectation will weigh any less heavily upon Eriksson, Völler, Trapattoni and Saez when the qualifiers resume. History and heritage weigh heavily in football and the countries they lead have enough of those intangibles for them to be a burden rather than an inspiration.

This is exacerbated by the contrast with Turkey, Iceland, Wales and Greece, the countries respectively challenging their perceived right to a seat at the European game's quadrennial reckoning. Between them the quartet have managed two appearances and one win in the previous 11 championships but all have a strong chance of reaching Portugal next summer.

While credit should be given to the inspiration of individuals such as the Wales coach, Mark Hughes, the underlying cause for these former makeweights' rise is the globalisation of the European game. The Welsh and Icelandic domestic leagues are, in the broad context, irrelevant but key individuals, such as Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy for Wales, and Eidur Gudjohnsen and Arni Gautur Arason for Iceland, have benefited from playing in European club competition with Manchester United, Newcastle United, Chelsea and Rosenborg respectively.

Greece and Turkey have had important players at the big western leagues, such as Nikos Dabizas, Nikos Machlas, Emre Belozoglu and Yildiray Basturk, but they are also profiting from the improvement of their domestic leagues. Clubs such as Olympiakos and Galatasaray have gained much Champions' League experience in recent years with their players' knowledge further enhanced by an influx of African and South American players.

Conversely the huge internationalisation of the English, German, Spanish and Italian leagues, while strengthening their clubs, has weakened those countries' national teams. These four leagues combined now feature more than 1,000 players whose allegiance lies outside the host country. All those players are being improved by playing in the big four while simultaneously restricting opportunities for native talent.

The upshot of this globalisation is an evening like that in Middlesbrough in June when a Slovakian based with the local club, Szilard Nemeth, ought to have severely dented his hosts' ambitions.

England and Turkey may look to have waltzed through Group Seven but the reality is that both teams have recorded better results than their performances have deserved. England, too, were held at home by Macedonia. A result like that would not have happened in Stanley Matthews' day, or even Malcolm MacDonald's, and not just because Macedonia did not then exist as their own nation.

Only one group has gone entirely to form. In Group One France-Slovenia-Israel-Cyprus-Malta looked the finishing order when it was drawn and it still does. The French, the title holders, should secure qualification on 10 September with a draw, at the very least, in Ljubljana.

Group Two has been marked by some stereotyped Viking feuding between the Danes and the Norsemen. Denmark, having emerged on top in Copenhagen in June, are favourites to qualify while a resurgent Romania could pip Norway to a play-off place. One hopes so. Norway may be an alternative "Premiership XI" but talent such as Cristian Chivu, Cosmin Contra and Adrian Mutu deserve the stage.

Although Moldova's shock win over Austria briefly distracted the eye, Group Three has been carved up by old foes the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. The loser will be a dangerous opponent in the play-offs.

Group Four, San Marino apart, has been a tight section with Poland suffering further disappointment following a poor World Cup. Romantics will welcome Hungary's revival and Latvia's emergence but the pragmatists of Sweden have a favourable draw and remain the likely winners.

Were it not for the litany of previous misadventures, against Costa Rica, Iran et al, Scotland's draw in the Faroes would have been cited as further evidence of a levelling of standards. Instead, it merely under- scores the Tartan decline. Only Germany's reversion to their shambling pre-World Cup performances, and the weakness of the other contenders, has enabled Scotland to remain in Group Five contention. Past evidence points at the Scots securing a heroic result in Germany on 10 September, then blowing it at home to Lithuania a month later.

Spain's home defeat to Greece in June stunned the Group Six favourites and they have little opportunity to recover. Probable Greek victories in Armenia next month and at home to goal-shy Northern Ireland in October will leave them fending off Ukraine for the play-off place. Spanish optimists will note that they normally qualify for tournaments in style, then disappoint. Maybe this time it will be the reverse.

Group Seven rests on the Anglo-Turkish match-up in Istanbul in October but Group Eight is far closer. Bulgaria, the long-time front-runners, might just hold off the inconsistent Belgium and Croatia.

Wales can secure at least a Group Nine play-off place with victory in Belgrade next Wednesday. That would put them beyond Italy if their home form holds regardless of their result in Milan in three weeks' time. The Republic of Ireland's revival under Brian Kerr should provide them with the momentum to squeeze out Russia and make a top-two finish in Group 10. Overtaking the Swiss, however, may be a step too far.

Those countries who reach the finals are likely to encounter conditions which favour those sides who take their time over a pass. Bad news for British and Irish teams but not for the hosts. Home advantage, and the nous of Felipe Scolari, will take Portugal a long way but key players may be too long in the tooth to win. France, regenerating impressively, should start favourites but the Spanish and Dutch, should they qualify, will be threats. Do not be surprised, though, if an upstart team such as Romania emerges to overthrow the nobility.

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