Uri Geller still claims to have focused his psychic powers to move the ball just before Gary McAllister struck his penalty against England in Euro 96. Yesterday, the England-based Israeli was at it again on Radio 5 Live, encouraging the nation to "concentrate your thoughts on Korea, Japan, and the USA" as prospective opponents in next summer's World Cup 2002. Which suggests that either he should stick to spoon-bending, or the collective consciousness of the English nation is not too acute at the hour in the morning at which the draw was made.
As for England, the inevitable Private Fraser-like cries of "We're all doomed" which followed the drawing of Sven Goran Eriksson's men with Argentina, Sweden and Nigeria in Group F, will undoubtedly be followed by a conviction that the country should concede 2002 now and prepare instead for Germany 2006. The only consolation was that it wasn't champions France, Germany, Brazil – always a potent threat, despite their much discussed "decline" – or Ireland who, make no mistake, have it within them and their psyche to defeat England.
At Old Trafford yesterday the draw was greeted by a predictable groan, which will have been echoed elsewhere. The consensus will be that this is not so much a group of death, more a group of hara-kiri, given the location of England's matches, once Eriksson begins realistically to assess his team's chances. It is straight into the maelstrom of serious competition. No chance of acclimatising themselves with a gentle stroll against Saudi Arabia or South Korea.
But should we be so pessimistic? Argentina may be favourites, but England's record against the dual World Cup winners hardly makes them the most daunting of opponents. In 12 meetings over half a century, England have only lost twice to Argentina – in Mexico City in the 1986 World Cup and 1964 in Rio de Janeiro – and, lest we forget, the last competitive meeting was a moral victory for Glenn Hoddle's men.
The date, 30 June, at St Etienne will be forever inscribed in the chronicles of English football history, both for Michael Owen's goal and for David Beckham's dismissal after tangling with Diego Simeone. But it was a contest in which England should have triumphed, and it is probable that Beckham and Co, their international confidence at its zenith, will relish the task of overcoming the team at present regarded as the best in the world. It could be that England, assuming that their preparations go to plan, will benefit from playing these opponents early rather than later in the competition, particularly as defeat would not necessarily be catastrophic.
Argentina qualified comfortably in what is admittedly a South American group in which it is awfully difficult for the prime contenders not to make the cut. The question will be whether Eriksson can construct a settled rearguard by then in order to render impotent the threat of Gabriel Batistuta, assuming he is selected, and Hernan Crespo and Javier Saviola. The defence, if we ignore the dilemma over who will take the goalkeeper's gloves, given David Seaman's long-term injury problems, is arguably the Swede's most pressing problem. It is intriguing to discover that he is considering Gareth Southgate as partner for Rio Ferdinand, rather than Sol Campbell, whose early form since transferring from Tottenham has not been convincing.
On yesterday's evidence at Old Trafford, the England coach could do worse than draft in Chelsea's John Terry for duty in one of next year's friendlies. This bold-tackling and invariably excellently positioned young man subdued Ruud van Nistelrooy and Andy Cole with aplomb yesterday and nobody can suggest that he does not now possess suitable Premiership experience. Tottenham's Ledley King is another who merits a chance in central defence.
Yesterday, we witnessed Beckham and Juan Sebastian Veron in tandem. In six months' time, they will be in opposition and that is sufficient enough to whet the appetite of what is promised in the Far East. Before then, however, England must confront Eriksson's compatriots, Sweden. In a perverse way, the nation, who were finalists in 1958, could just prove more troublesome than Argentina.
In the two previous managerial reigns, they accounted for England home and away and, in the recent draw at Old Trafford in the friendly, the team jointly coached by Lars Lagerback and Tommy Soderberg caused Eriksson's team some embarrassment, particularly considering that the likes of Henrik Larsson and Fredrik Ljungberg were absent.
Nigeria, meanwhile, are much favoured by many, including Pele, who regards them as potentially Africa's first World Cup winners. They remain, though, an unknown quantity. Although Nigeria are relative newcomers to World Cup football, England would fail to respect their potential at their peril. Players of the quality of Chelsea's Celestine Babayaro and Arsenal's Kanu, together with Victor Agali of the German club Schalke, testify to the calibre of personnel they can call upon.
Yes, it will be tough for England. But they are surely capable of qualifying from this group. As Eriksson will presumably tell himself, achieve that and it can only get easier...Reuse content