Sweet inspiration waits at the final frontier

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The Independent Online
ALREADY, there is a discernible scent of adventure about this World Cup that suggests we are in for a spell-binding month of spectacularly unpredictable football. I am driven to this rash hyperbole not so much by the exciting quality of what we have witnessed thus far in the first flush of group matches but by the gnawing feeling that we are in the presence of 32 teams most of whom don't seem to have the faintest idea of how good or bad they are.

Far from arriving in France with sound and settled squads, perfectly formed game-plans and a clear vision of what is required to carry off the cup, those occupying the centre stage of the world's greatest sporting tournament give the appearance of being no more than a bunch of talented buskers hoping they can vamp their way to some sweet music over the next few weeks.

If genuine spontaneity is to be the keynote of France 98 few of us are likely to complain but, in the context of what we have grown to expect of the modern game, this impression does not reflect well on the coaches and neither does it boast of effective preparation. But these may be excusable deficiencies largely explained by the fact that never before have countries had so many vital players dispersed throughout faraway lands. Where once they were home-based and playing in a home-spun style, they are now scattered over the globe and exposed to tactical variations that wouldn't make it easier to blend them together when they re-group under the national flag.

The interesting fact that of all the players involved in this World Cup 75 of them play in our Premiership - more than in any other - would suggest another reason for confusion. The other point of fascination is that England are one of the few countries whose entire squad are based in their own domestic competition. It remains to be seen how much of an advantage this is but it is certainly a factor that has been overlooked in assessing England's chances.

At least, this general state of unreadiness should lessen any dismay in the England camp about the amount of bellyaching they are hearing from countrymen concerned at the lack of persuasive preparation Glenn Hoddle has managed to attain. When they decided to clamp down on tackles from behind, Fifa neglected to do anything about getting clogged from back home.

Apart from the bookmakers reporting that England supporters are not showing their faith by betting on their team with anything like the customary enthusiasm, the chorus of disapproval from the experts shows no sign of abating. The former England managers Bobby Robson and Terry Venables led the attack on Hoddle for excluding Paul Gascoigne.

Last week, Kevin Keegan and John Barnes were loudest in their condemnation of the England coach's build-up. Keegan, another who would have taken Gascoigne, believes that Hoddle has wasted the time he has had with the squad in the past few weeks. Barnes criticised him for too much tinkering with the side so close to the start of the tournament.

Tinkering? You can't sleep in France this weekend for the sound of tinkering coaches. This is one of the delicious results of the huge increase in the entertainment value of the traditionally dour beginnings of the final group stage of a World Cup.

It is the heaviest irony that the one team who bore the most obvious signs of shrewd and meticulous planning in the first clutch of matches were Scotland. They also had to bear the cruellest luck. Craig Brown is a manager who impresses not only with his dignified and sporting manner but with his thoughtful approach. Few gave Brown the chance of achieving much with the men at his disposal but theirs was a sound and confident display that deserved better.

Unfortunately, they suffered that most doom-laden fate - the loss of the first match. It is the long-established fear of coming away empty- handed that forces most coaches to approach the opening game with the utmost caution. Hence, the number of World Cups that have began with a dreary list of draws.

We've had a high proportion of draws in this one so far but negative play has been far less of a cause than pure luck. The Moroccan own goal that gave Norway an undeserved draw was not as freakish as that by which Scotland perished, but it was a gross misfortune none the less.

The penalty awarded to Italy when Roberto Baggio's cross struck the innocently dangling hand of Chile's Ronald Fuentes was an appalling decision, especially compared with the ignored but far more blatant infringement when Dunga, the Brazilian captain, handled John Collins's free-kick as it sped towards goal.

If we were told once, we were told a dozen times by the ITV commentating crew that Italy are notoriously slow starters in big tournaments. That's not quite accurate. What they are is notoriously careful; which makes the destruction of their defence by Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamorano all the more serious.

It takes an experience like that to convince a team of the need to make swift improvement and that, rather than any reputation they arrived with, will determine how far they proceed. Brazil will be afflicted with priorities of a similar nature following their victory over Scotland, immediately after which they at least had the decency to look mightily relieved.

Brazil have had a longer and more thorough preparation than most but even they will now be more aware that far more is required of them. With players like Ronaldo in their midst, they are still better equipped than any other squad for the task but they are going to need all the inspiration they can muster.

It should hearten any onlooker who has weathered the first rush and is now settling down for the rest of the long haul to the quarter-finals that whoever wins this World Cup is going to grow into that capability before our very eyes.

Moreover, it is a situation in which the coaches may have to be inclined to surrender control to individuality on the pitch. The best we have seen so far has been the result of fleeting genius in the heart of the action and not always from the expected source.

The scene favours the brave and commends itself to those willing to try to push back a few frontiers and not be afraid to tackle a few forbidding heights. If Hoddle and his men have anything worthwhile in their natures and possess an eagerness to overcome the squalid memories that littered their path to France they can turn up at Marseilles tomorrow and start surprising us.

They just have to think of Geoff Hurst and his 1966 hat-trick and they, too, could be getting a knighthood in 32 years' time.

THE England rivals Teddy Sheringham and Michael Owen played golf against each other on the La Baule course on Friday. Knowing what these footballers are like for gambling, I hope Sheringham didn't lose his shirt.

As for Sheringham's rehabilitation in the eyes of his coach, Glenn Hoddle, I understand the player has reached the first stage in being restored to the boss's good books. He now knows the difference between a piss-up and a Drewery.