Strangers prepare to gatecrash the party EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP: Italy and France struggling against unfamiliar opponents . Glenn Moore reports

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The Independent Online
At this stage in a European Championship qualifying campaign England fans would usually be poring over tables and fixtures, anxiously trying to work out how the national team could reach the finals.

Automatic qualification, by virtue of being hosts in 1996, has saved them from this masochistic ritual but elsewhere in the British Isles, and across Europe and beyond from Lisbon to Tbilisi and Oslo to Tel Aviv, the permutations are being considered.

There is one place in England where the sums will still be done: at the Football Association's Lancaster Gate headquarters as they, too, ponder who the party guests will be.

It will be another year until we know but, as the contenders enter a three-month winter hibernation, early patterns can be discerned and there is mixed news for the FA.

While their accountants will be pleased to see that the Republic of Ireland and Germany have made good starts, the security chiefs have more reason for concern.

In Group One Israel, a security nightmare even in more peaceful times for the Middle-East, are showing signs of reaching their first football tour nament since the more relaxed days of Mexico '70 - two years before the massacre of their athletes at the Munich Olympics forever changed sporting perceptions.

Israel should not even be in the competition. Geographically they belong in the Asian Federation but so problematic has Israel's political situation been - they were once bracketed with Australasia - in football terms they are now considered European. This is the first time they have been included in the championships.

What would be especially galling for the FA is that Israel's qualification, if it happens, is likely to be at the expense of France. Given the presence of Eric Cantona and the ease of cross-Channel travel, French participation would be lucrative for ticket and ancillary sales.

Other big drawcards who may be struggling to qualify are Italy, Denmark, the holders, and Scotland, who would bring the largest travelling support of all - though the Irish would run them close. However, despite the Tartan Army's recent good behaviour, some in the FA, mindful of those infamous trips to Wembley in the 1970s, regard Scottish qualification as a mixed blessing. Certainly there is no enthusiasm on either side of the border for a warm-up between Terry Venables' side and Craig Brown's team.

But the biggest absentee would be Italy (even though Scotland qualified for the last European Championship and Italy did not). Their home defeat to Croatia last month stunned the Italians, who were comprehensively outplayed and only scored in the last minute.

The result followed the revelation that Arrigo Sacchi, the manager, is being paid $7.5m (£4.8m) over four years. He is under intense criticism at home and faces a crucial four days when Group Four resumes in late March as Italy host Estonia and then visit Ukraine.

The Croatians' victory also underlined the emergence of the new Eastern European nations in general and the former Yugoslav ones in particular. Croatia were inspired by the Seville striker, Davor Suker, who scored twice, and also included Zvonimir Boban,of Milan, Robert Prosinecki, of Real Oviedo, and the Casino Salzburg pair, Mladen Mladenovic and Nikola Jurcevic. A fair quintet and merely the tip of the Yugoslav export mountain.

There are 20 former Yugoslavs playing in the Spanish First Division alone, and though not all the new states are in the competition both Macedonia (second in Group Two) and Slovenia (who drew at home with Italy) have acquitted themselves well despite theobvious problems of dislocation and disruption caused by the civil war and player exodus.

Given that the former Yugoslavia, for all their talents, never hinted at World Cup success, it makes one wonder whether a combined United Kingdom really would bring more success than the present situation.

The prospect of emergent nations qualifying, though it will not thrill the FA's money men, would add weight to their planned education programme. The FA are hoping to use the tournament to promote the game in schools and one of the methods is using the competition to illustrate the new Europe.

In that respect they are more generous to the new nations than Franz Beckenbauer, who suggested last week that such countries - "Moldova, or Albania, or God knows what these countries are called" - should pre-qualify for the championship. He added that such matches "constitute a devaluation of our national side."

Though his argument was undermined when Germany only just defeated Albania 2-1 on Sunday, it was tacitly recognised by Uefa when it framed the qualification rules (see tables). It effectively excluded goal difference gained by big wins over the weaker sides such as Portugal's 8-0 weekend win over Liechtenstein.

The Portuguese, who narrowly missed a World Cup place, have won four from four as have neighbours Spain and World Cup failures Greece. In Group Five, the Netherlands, who change managers in the new year - Gus Hiddink replacing Dick Advocaat - again find themselves chasing a quick-starting Norway side largely made up of English club players.

There is English interest elsewhere. Roy Hodgson continues to lead Switzerland's football boom while both Jurgen Klinsmann and his Spurs' team-mate, the Israeli Ronnie Rosenthal, scored for their countries last week. Elsewhere Mixu Paatelainen, of Bolto n , Swindon's Jan Age Fjortoft and Bryan Roy, of Nottingham Forest, also scored - and this was in a reduced programme.

It was an illustration of the cosmopolitan nature of English football and underlined that, given an equally international population (somewhere in England, but maybe not in Wales, there will be a Moldovan restuarant), few countries will be without some support whoever qualifies.

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