James Lawton: After years on its deathbed, international football suddenly appears in rude health

Matches have been marked by some intense effort and rather beautiful football
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In the age of the Superclub and the Superleague, international football is supposed to be dead. An official certificate has never been issued but most people reckon it happened around six years ago, when certainly there was no shortage of circumstantial evidence.

As it happens, that is precisely what it may have been, circumstantial, though it is easy enough to see how the mistake was made.

Remember when the reigning champions France arrived in Seoul to launch the World Cup of 2002? Senegal ran them off their feet in the opening game and they did not make it past the group stage. Zinedine Zidane, who a few weeks earlier had scored one of the greatest goals in European Cup history for Real Madrid, resembled a corpse in the blue shirt of France when he eventually made the team.

Nor did it help when one of the South Korean heroes – Ahn Jung Hwan – was adjudged to be putting in so much more work for his country than he had for the team who paid his wages that his club president at Perugia back in the lower reaches of Italy's Serie A threatened to tear up his contract.

There it is, the final evidence, you thought. Play well for you country and you betray your club.

Intimations of life in national teams were even harder to find two years later in Euro 2004 in Portugal, when a Greek team categorised as willing hod carriers trampled though the congealing cream of Europe. France, again, were so wretched in one game – against Croatia – they stopped short only at laying down their arms.

David Beckham claimed that his tepid form and palpable lack of fitness were entirely due to the training regime of Real Madrid. It was as though the tournament – so long regarded as the second most important in world football – was not so much fought out as abandoned.

Ditto World Cup 2006, which started beautifully with an Argentine masterpiece, then degenerated into a series of dives and one climactic headbutt.

So what, on earth, did a European Championship in Austria and Switzerland offer more than possibilities for sick jokes and a little yodelling practice?

Now we know, we can say that those death rites for the international game may indeed have been somewhat premature.

We are still in early days, of course, but there is no hardship in suggesting that, if at least some of the first momentum is maintained, we have the possibility of the most engaging football tournament since Fifa was so frightened by the wretched quality of the 1990 World Cup in Italy it decided to banish the back pass.

A big statement, perhaps, but a sustainable one if only for a clutch of games which, despite the weariness of the modern player, for whom playing more than 40 games tends to bring on the demeanour of Scott of the Antarctic around the time he was pitching his last tent, have been marked not only by some intense effort but, at times, some rather beautiful football.

Perhaps not the least surprise is that some of the best and least cynical of it has come from a trio of coaches whose antecedents are not exactly redolent with idealism.

Croatia's coach Slaven Bilic was understandably jubilant about the character and the swagger of his team's triumph over the formidable Germans, and so open-hearted in his reaction, it was hard to imagine – and for the first time maybe made it easier to forgive – that he was once guilty of arguably the most appalling, and certainly the most consequential, "simulation" in the history of the game, when he feigned injury so shockingly it made the red card of France's superb veteran Laurent Blanc, and his removal from the 1998 World Cup final, inevitable.

Marco van Basten of the Netherlands may have been one of the ultimate strikers, a man whose goal against Germany in a European Championship semi-final 20 years ago is considered by many to have defined the most superior technique, but in his brief time as a coach his record is maybe not one to celebrate with white roses and doves of peace. Picking rows with Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf and, most recently, Ruud van Nistelrooy did not display the most equable nature – and nor does the fact that, with Portugal's Luiz Felipe Scolari, he has one of the most notorious of World Cup games – the "Battle of Nuremberg" two years ago – against his name.

Yet who walked more resolutely with the angels at the start of this week than Van Basten and his team in the 3-0 conquest of the world champions Italy? Going into last night's game with France, Van Basten's Dutch had already restated the case for international football as a source of both entertainment and passion as relevant as anything ordained by the paymasters of the club game. The Oranje revived some of the best of our memories of football on any stage, when a small nation threw up players like Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Rudi Krol, but also pushed back the tactical boundaries of the game under one of the great thinkers, Rinus Michels.

Yet, most remarkably of all, who do we find for the moment – it is only a moment and no doubt a perilous one but it makes it no less extraordinary for that – at the top of the European charm school of 2008?

It is no less than the gnarled old coach of Spain, Luis Aragones, the man who sometimes displays the sensitivity quota of a public executioner. Aragones survived with his job a racist charge over alleged remarks about Thierry Henry to Jose Antonio Reyes and at any one time in his four-year reign there have been pressure groups agitating for his removal. Yet Aragones may just be the man to end Spain's status as the most talented but futile force in the history of the international game.

He has assembled a team so cohesive and strong, and with such an effective and exciting midfield that Cesc Fabregas, the young maestro of San Siro when he led Arsenal to their luminous win over Milan a few months ago, is reduced to a walk-on role.

That he performed one so exquisitely in the 4-1 ransacking of Guus Hiddink's Russia is still another commentary on the quality of the leading contenders. The ball from Fabregas that enabled David Villa to complete his hat-trick also provoked speculation on quite what would come to the Emirates if the briefly flowering relationship was replanted in north London. Yet for Aragones it appears that it was a passing luxury. He is, it seems, yet to be convinced that Fabregas's sublime touch outweighs in value the graft and the panache of the current occupants of midfield, David Silva, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

Most impressive for many, including Sir Bobby Charlton, is the sense that so many of the leading players of Europe have gone to Austria and Switzerland apparently intent on doing rather more than going through the motions.

"I have noticed a little strain on the faces of some of the leading players," said Sir Bobby this week, "and I was quite surprised that the Germans didn't make a few changes before their game with Croatia. I know we talk of the modern player having it easy, but two games a week at this stage of the season is not easy in any circumstances. What I do have to say is I've been very impressed with the level of commitment – and quality of a lot of the football. You have to say also that still a lot of players seem to want to do well for their country."

Charlton, of course, played 106 times for England and scored 49 goals and, when he won six of his caps and scored three of his goals in helping win the World Cup in 1966, he had already appeared 65 times for Manchester United that season.

This is not, plainly, a man to be too easily impressed by the endeavours of a perhaps less demanding football age. So when he says that Euro 2008 has life and quality and that he gets the clear impression that it will be fought to a hard and meaningful climax, maybe we are right to feel at least the beginnings of a flush of celebration.

Four years ago much less, certainly, would have been cause for a first toast. That, surely, would have been provoked by certified evidence that international football still had a pulse.