James Lawton: Team's recovery plagued by return of English disease

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It would be wonderful now from almost any point of view to say that Sven Goran Eriksson's England, who came so close to stunning France last Sunday night, are at most risk in their battle for redemption on the field of play.

It would be wonderful now from almost any point of view to say that Sven Goran Eriksson's England, who came so close to stunning France last Sunday night, are at most risk in their battle for redemption on the field of play.

But, as things are going in that part of England on a foreign field where it is OK to booze and bellow and urinate wherever you please, it simply wouldn't be true. England have already proved themselves competitive against even a team of the deep quality of the reigning champions. What they cannot fight, however, is their greatest enemy - their own people in the street.

England are endangered not so much by the prospect of shafts of football brilliance - the first round of games has told us that - but broken bottles and cheap café furniture thrown by men and boys who, it seems all over again, are as incapable of holding anything dear as they are their cut-priced beer. So far their drunken, lemming lurches have come well away from the stadiums - much to the relief of Uefa, for whom the integrity of the tournament would suffer seriously if England had to be expelled, but the tide of misbehaviour is growing.

Forty years on from the first symptoms of the disease of hooliganism, the revulsion has not been tempered by familiarity.

Indeed, here it is being intensified by the terrible evidence that what the Portuguese riot police are confronting is not merely another passing, spasm of mindlessness ... but an English virus of the ages. Eriksson and the Iron Duke Wellington, for example, may not have a lot in common but what it is goes beyond the inconvenience of having had mistresses with an overwhelming desire to go public. The reminder has come here in the last 24 hours with the swell of riotous behaviour on the Algarve holiday strip.

As the Uefa authorities, who four years ago warned England that they were at risk of expulsion from the European Championship in Belgium and the Netherlands in the event of one more rampage by their supporters, ever more closely monitor the drunken, violent behaviour, Wellington's comment on the eve of Waterloo comes back into focus. Noting the chaos in the streets of Brussels, as his foot soldiers poured out of the bars and brothels, he said he didn't know their effect on the enemy but they scared him to death.

The England coach echoes such a sentiment on the build up to night's game here against Switzerland - one that must be won on the first stage of redemption from the ambush by Zinedine Zidane. If the fans bring the mood of the cheap drinking bars here to the narrow streets of this old university town England's campaign, as Eriksson has warned repeatedly, runs the risk of stopping dead.

Eriksson says: "It is more important than ever that the fans support their team in a proper way. We can still win this tournament - we showed that in our performance against the French. It would be terrible to lose off the field." Fuelling Eriksson's concern is that which became so clear when Ruud van Nistelrooy rescued the Netherlands in the last of the first round of games with a late goal against a German side which was supposed to be heading not for glory but rigor mortis. It was that England will never have a better chance to end 40 years of futility in these championships.

For the moment at least, and after acknowledging the remarkable killer strokes of Zidane against England, mediocrity reigns. Only the traditionally sound but plodding Swedes delivered a convincing performance in the first round, but that was against a Bulgaria plainly yet to master the basics of serious defence.

France were shown to be beatable until England forgot the value of holding on to the ball - and David Beckham missed a penalty. The Italians, who were mostly second best in the 0-0 draw with 1992 champions Denmark, still looked rooted in their timid efforts in the World Cup. Spain showed some creativity but little or no Toledo steel against toothless Russia. Portugal went into last night's duel with Russia, a game they needed to win just as fiercely as England against the Swiss, not as the hope but the despair of the nation following the inept 2-1 loss to ill-considered Greece in the opening game. The Czechs, prompted by the celebrated Pavel Nedved, fought through to a stirring 2-1 victory - against Lavia.

So, naturally Eriksson is haunted by the prospect of a loutish de-railing of his hopes. But then you feed that possible waste of a potentially great sporting story for England into a wider context and you are left with the national shame which just refuses to go away.

Uefa, desperate to preserve England's presence in a major tournament that going into last night's action had been conducted in a decidedly minor key, were stressing yesterday that the bottle and chair throwing of the Algarve night at this point didn't constitute a threat to England - only, perhaps, the recurring one to the idea that it remains a civilised country.

We have seen two oddities this week. One is the defensive position of the academic psychologist advisers on the hooligan problem who say that swilling beer all day and behaving "boisterously" - and with a total lack of courtesy - in somebody's else's country is not a crime. Technically perhaps not, but where do you draw the line in displays of provocation that have been turning the stomach for nearly 40 years now?

The other aberration is the reluctance of senior England players, with the notable exception of Michael Owen, to come out strongly against both the hooligans and, if you accept the Uefa separation, the louts.

Sol Campbell has several times been invited to urge the fans to behave themselves, even at the most basic level of them not hurting the team they claim to support. But each time he has declined, saying, "We have our own job to do - we are not politicians." At the same time the Arsenal centre back has been talking of his overwhelming desire to win something important. Yet he didn't see the point of trying to enlist the help of the people who had already run amok in the Algarve. Maybe he is right. Maybe any appeal from him would be as pointless as the Prime Minister talking, as he did this week, about the latest heaping of national disgrace.

It means that here an England team of undoubted promise, who have reason to be believe they can beat any of their 15 rivals, run out not so much potential heroes as long-term prisoners. Maybe, against all the disturbing signs, the sentence will be lifted here tonight and then back in Lisbon for the final group game against Croatia on Monday night. Beating Switzerland should be accomplished easily enough around a quarter to eight tonight. But that will not suspend the need to scour the cobbled streets of Coimbra until well past midnight. Only then will Eriksson and his men be able to take advantage of a little uncontaminated air and breathe rather more freely.

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