Mike Rowbottom: Renaissance for England? Don't hold your breath

From Left Field
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The Independent Online

Watching Croatian footballers writhing and rolling this week was quite something.

Watching Croatian footballers writhing and rolling this week was quite something.

I haven't laughed so much since I was stuck in a taxi queue at Newcastle station after pub chucking-out and the group in front of me decided I was Saddam Hussein's brother. Twenty minutes is a long time to maintain hilarity.

Clearly, the Croatian approach has not fundamentally altered since the furore at the 1998 World Cup, when Slavan Bilic's play-acting denied Laurent Blanc a place in the final.

How different things might have been had the former West Ham defender not got the Frenchman sent off. Frank LeBoeuf would not have got a game against Brazil. Nor would he have had any answer to the mickey-taking subsequently incurred on They Think It's All Over, which he warded off with metaphorical flourishes of his World Cup winner's medal.

Honestly, I sometimes think life is just like a big game of pick-up-sticks. But to return to my theme.

Without wishing to be offensive in any way, I have to say that the opening round of action from Euro 2004 confirmed a number of sporting stereotypes.

The Croatians we've already mentioned - while their opponents in the first match, Switzerland, gave a familiarly lightweight but dogged display which earned them a goalless draw despite having a man sent off for most of the second half. How do you make a Swiss roll? The Croatians had the answer - first you trip him, then you wind him up.

You could have predicted, too, that the Netherlands would arrive with a super-talented, squabbling squad and fail to to beat their old adversary Germany, especially as the latter had come to the event avowing that their dismal form would earn them nothing at all. Yeah, right. Lucky German goal, too - but now my prejudice is showing.

The Portuguese hosts, as expected, offered another early indication of the fear and underachievement which have tarnished their so-called golden generation of players.

As for the English, well, that "so near and yet so far" feeling at the end of their traumatic defeat by France - where had we experienced that before? Oh yes - after losing to the 10 men of Brazil in the last World Cup. And after losing on penalties to Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. And on penalties to the Germans in Euro 1996 and the 1990 World Cup. And after losing to Argentina and the Hand of God in the 1986 World Cup ...

Do I sound bitter? I don't mean to be. It is simply our legacy as a footballing nation, and all you can do is accept it.

It's the same thing with the tennis. You have to accept that Tim Henman will play well, very well at times, and will not give up, and will experience bad luck, and earn respect, and do anything and everything except actually end up winning a grand slam event. That's just the way it is.

Will it ever change? Will Tim ever win Wimbledon? Will David Beckham ever flourish anything other than ill-considered tattoos?

I suppose there are hopeful precedents. For years, Paula Radcliffe, was a confirmed, indeed a classic plucky Brit, apparently doomed to an endless sequence of gallant failures.

By an enormous act of will, however, Radcliffe has reinvented herself as a champion athlete on track, road and grass - an awesome, and somehow very un-English transformation.

England's rugby players, too, offered a startling new vision of efficiency and achievement in winning their World Cup last winter.

So it has been done, and it can be done again. But despite the fact that we've shown the 10-men Swiss where to get off, don't hold your breath ...

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