The dangers of fast feet and quick wits

Hoddle's imprudent digression could rebound on the three lions against a gifted Argentina today.
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AMONG THE many traps into which a football coach can fall is that of winding up the opposition. "Why did he say these things?" an Argentinian sportswriter asked yesterday about remarks attributed to Glenn Hoddle. "Why does he have to bring up the past?"

The past, of course, is Diego Maradona's fisted goal against England in the 1986 World Cup finals, his claim to divine intervention. One thing leads to another. The past is also Antonio Rattin's wrongful dismissal at Wembley 20 years earlier when England were seriously at risk of losing to Argentina in the quarter-finals.

Hoddle's mistake, not the England coach's first under interrogation, was to elaborate indiscreetly on how he felt as a member of the 1986 England team. "Maybe Hoddle's words were twisted by English reporters but that's not how it seems to our players who have done nothing here to suggest they are cheats," my friend said.

So typical of England's public relations, fuel for a further outbreak of xenophobia in the popular prints, Hoddle's imprudent digressions could work against him today in St Etienne where only 2,000 places have been allocated to English supporters.

Considering that their coach, Daniel Passarella, is ranked by many as the most ruthless great defender football has seen, Argentina's behaviour in winning all three group games was impeccable. If aggression in contests for the ball is a prominent feature of Passarella's instruction, he appears to have kept cynicism at bay, although, as the England scout Dave Sexton points out, they have not yet found themselves up against a crisis.

After watching Argentina twice here and in a warm-up match against the Republic of Ireland shortly before the finals, Sexton thinks them to be a cool, well-balanced team with a strong midfield and plenty of scoring potential. "[Roberto] Ayala is a good organiser in defence, [Juan] Veron passes intelligently and nobody needs to be told that [Gabriel] Batistuta and [Ariel] Ortega are extremely talented attackers," he said.

England's defenders are never more uncomfortable than when exposed to quick-footed thrusts through frontal cover, something they rarely experience in club matches, so the errors of judgement, collective and individual, that were evident even when outplaying Colombia could be fatal if repeated against Argentina. Certainly, it will be essential for Tony Adams, Sol Campbell and Phil Neville to follow the advice of England's greatest defender, Bobby Moore, who stressed the importance of remaining upright when called upon to deal with dribblers and sharp interpassing.

If Argentina are not up to the standards of 1978 and 1986 (the year when Maradona's game reached a level matched only by Pele) they have gifted individuals, most obviously Batistuta, whose total of four goals puts him one behind Christian Vieri of Italy as the tournament's leading scorer.

An important fact about these finals, at least one that registers with me personally, is that no team, not even the favourites, Brazil, has yet given an impression of special identity. This came up the other day in a conversation I had with Hoddle's predecessor, Terry Venables, whose time presently is divided between television work and getting things in order at Crystal Palace.

Any team that achieves a level of consistency will be the one Venables fancies. "It's reached the stage where nobody can afford to give less than an average performance," he said. "There's no longer a parachute. Play well below your best against even ordinary opposition who are prepared to work hard and intelligently and you could be on the way home."

Something like this appeared to be in the air on Sunday when France, troubled clearly by the absence of Zinedine Zidane through suspension, grew so desperate against Paraguay that the odds would have been against them in the penalty shoot-out that was avoided only when Laurent Blanc scored the World Cup's first golden goal. L'Equipe's banner headline - "La Deliverance" - said it all.

The France coach, Aime Jacquet, expressed an opinion similar to that of Venables. "It is critical now to show at least average form," he said, "because we must be prepared for bad fortune. We had good opportunities to make two or three goals against Paraguay but through leaving the door open a couple of times we might have lost."

Average is the description most football people here associate with England but nobody should underestimate their natural fortitude. "This has always been strong in their game," Passarella said yesterday, "and it comes into how we are preparing to play them. As England showed in the second half against Romania, even when things are going badly they don't give up."

Last week in Toulouse, an hour or so after the loss to Romania, I came across an objective Londoner who said that he would not back England to win the World Cup with his mother-in-law's money. "Not good enough," he said.

However, if rather too much was made of England's subsequent performance against Colombia they have given Passarella plenty to think about.

As for the cheating slur, Hoddle's by interpretation, Passarella was dismissive. "Perhaps not him but the newspapers," said Argentina's coach, a hard man in control of his emotions but dangerously sensitive to ill- advised provocation.