Moldova man-trap awaits England

As Glenn Hoddle's men embark on their World Cup journey into the unknown, Trevor Haylett reports on what they might find
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It is hard to resist the observation that with local wine in generous supply and the brandy rated superior to that from France - a judgment, incidentally, made by a Frenchman - the compensations for England's footballers travelling to Moldova this weekend are substantial.

Of course, unless Glenn Hoddle's faith in the Continental approach includes alcohol with the pre-match meal, the opportunity for serious refreshment for Paul Gascoigne, Teddy Sheringham and those others who, in Hong Kong, changed forever the profile of the dentist's chair, might well depend on them surviving Sunday's World Cup experience with their reputations intact.

Commencing a new qualifying campaign in such strange and stark surroundings can never be ideal but surely defeat for Hoddle's side is unthinkable? After all, who are the luminaries from the Moldovan league - a 14-club competition which struggles to capture the attention of even the local inhabitants - to stand tall alongside our Premiership heroes?

Wales made much the same mistake and stumbled blindly into the man-trap, paying heavily two years ago for a disastrous preparation with a shock 3-2 defeat and acute embarrassment from which their European Championship ambitions could never recover. Yet there are several reasons why England can confidently expect a more successful outcome.

Hoddle, clearly, has better players from whom to choose. For Moldova's first competitive home fixture since independence from the former Soviet Union was granted in 1991, Wales were lacking Hughes, Rush, Giggs and Saunders and were woefully inexperienced at that level. Strong character was required, such was the strength of nationalist clamour, but the stand- ins from the First Division were unable to cope.

Moldova are now more experienced member of football's international community and as such the English Football Association has found communications easier than did their Cardiff colleagues. So England have booked into the best hotel in Chisinau, and avoided "Cockroach City" which is how Neville Southall and Co came to regard their dark and dismal accommodation.

An added factor will be the admiration, bordering on awe, that they have for their English visitors. The likes of Gascoigne, Shearer and Ince are held in high esteem. Those making reconnaissance missions to the Moldovan capital in recent weeks have found their attempts to gather information about the home side lost in a never-ending series of requests about Hoddle's first international team, and, in particular, "Your pounds 15m man".

Even the best home players hardly merit a second glance from the impoverished folk who in a country of 4.3 million and sandwiched between Romania and the Ukraine, are forced to scratch out an unenviable living from their tiny roadside stalls, in which the most basic wares are offered for sale.

Not many can afford to support the domestic league. Not many want to. Crowds of around 100 are not uncommon, football trailing Greco-Roman wrestling in popularity. In Chisinau the country's star turn, Alexander Courtenau, a midfield player with both imaginative flair and film star looks can walk around completely undisturbed.

Now recovered from a serious knee injury which aborted his transfer to Stuttgart, Courtenau is both captain and inspiration for a side that has undergone many changes in the last two years. The coach, Ion Caras, has a team long on youth and short on height. In a recent friendly against Turkey two 19-year-olds, Sergei Epureanu and Alexander Popovic, were involved. The goalkeeper, Denis Romanenko, has a tendency to rush from his line so distance-specialists David Beckham and David Batty should already be sharpening their shooting skills.

"They have an awareness of what to do when in possession but my overriding feeling was that Moldova were lightweight up front," commented Bobby Gould, who achieved a measure of Welsh revenge with a single- goal victory 12 months ago in his first game since replacing Mike Smith as manager.

Smith never lived down the humiliation of Chisinau. Yet he does not foresee similar problems for England. "It was just one of those games when it all went wrong," he recalls. "We were not able to get hold of any videos and so we didn't really know what to expect. It was a big occasion for them and they were prepared to die for the cause whereas we did not have enough prepared to die for our cause."

Moldova also possess the sound technique with which all East European teams have in abundance. Just look at how English defences have struggled to cope with Georgi Kinkladze, the midfield genius Manchester City recruited from Georgia.

"Courtenau is better than Kinkladze," said the Moldovan federation president, Petru Comendant, with undisguised pride. "He can be brilliant or terrible but on his day Courtenau can run a game and that is something Kinkladze cannot do."

The pitch will not be as hard as Wales encountered but with upwards of a dozen matches played every weekend at the Republican Stadium the goalmouths are, even at this stage of the season, short of grass. With no other facilities, England's training and the under-21 fixture must all take place at the same location. It holds 20,000, the authorities say they could have sold twice that number of tickets.

About 700 English supporters are expected and the city's dilapidated roads and the ramshackle vehicles will be an eye-opener for them. Moldova's economy is slowly improving but without the assistance of Uefa, Europe's governing body, it is hard to see how international football could survive there.

"We offer help across the board, in administration, coaching, refereeing and by improving the infrastructure" said Eric Epple, who heads the East European Assistance Bureau, an independent department within Uefa and supporting, among others, the new federations created by the break-up of the Soviet empire.

"I've seen for myself the improvement in skill and Moldova has some excellent players even if as a team there is still much to work on," Epple said. "On a practical level we have provided computers and furniture to rebuild the federation headquarters. Currently we are looking at the possibility of reconstructing the national stadium.

"I know the German team had reservations about going there, especially after they heard of Wales' problems, but they remarked afterwards of the 'beautiful experience' of seeing how people in other countries tackle their difficulties. It is good for highly paid players to see that those with less money can also lead happy lives."

World Cup qualifying guide, pages 6 and 7