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Saturday, June 12, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

France-England match an early treat for Euro 2004 fans


LONDON -- Hopefully, France's record over the last 12 months will have been kept a secret from England as the teams prepare to meet in Lisbon on Sunday.

Christopher Davies

It is 1,039 minutes since the European champion conceded a goal, Turkey's Tuncay the last player to break the French resistance in the Confederations Cup, 11 games and 11 months ago.

In fact, since France's limp display in the 2002 World Cup finals, when the deposed champion returned winless and goalless, its record is: P24 W20 D 3 L1 F62 A8.

During the same period England's record is: P18 W10 D5 L3 F33 A19.

Yet surprisingly the French supporters are not brimming with confidence for what coach Jacques Santini, who will join Tottenham after Euro 2004, calls "a Premiership derby."

Fabien Barthez is still prone to a moment of madness, as we saw in the UEFA Cup final when the Olympique Marseille goalkeeper conceded a penalty and was shown the red card, putting Valencia on the road to victory.

The presence of Marcel Desailly in defense is not a popular choice though the Chelsea player's injury may keep him out of the England game, to the relief of the majority back home in France.

It is remarkable that a team that has almost forgotten what it's like to concede a goal and scores them at the other end for fun, should inspire such worries in its supporters.

France's cause is also considerably helped by having, by virtually unanimous agreement, the best footballer on the planet in Zinedine Zidane -- the prospect of stopping ZZ will no doubt ensure few zzzz's for England head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson before the match.

France will probably have seven Premiership players past or present in its lineup -- Barthez, William Gallas, Mikael Silvestre, Robert Pires, Claude Makelele, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry. There will be no secrets with a number of club colleagues up against each other.

Arsenal's Sol Campbell vs. Thierry Henry and Ashley Cole vs. Robert Pires; Chelsea's Frank Lampard vs. Claude Makelele; and Real Madrid's David Beckham vs. Zinedine Zidane, but perhaps the most intriguing and crucial battle will be whether Patrick Vieira or Steven Gerrard assumes control in central midfield.

Gerrard has probably had the best season of any England player, maturing from a young, leggy midfielder to someone with a presence that is only a whisker behind that of Vieira.

The Liverpool player missed the last World Cup through injury and is keen to make up for lost time.

"We haven't won a major tournament for a long time and every player here wants to be part of something that matters," said Gerrard, who was inspired by England's triumph in the Rugby World Cup six months ago.

"Watching that gave all of us a bit of a boost and perhaps a little jealousy. We want some of that."

Vieira makes no secret of his admiration for Gerrard.

"He was a very good player before, but he is twice the man and player now," said the Arsenal captain. "He's my favorite England player. He has improved his game and is stronger mentally.

"We've had plenty of good battles and when I play against Gerrard I know I must raise my game. He is so dynamic that you have to be aware of his movement at all times."

Vieira expects the game to be "possibly one of the best seen in the competition and definitely one of the most amazing I've ever been involved in," and it is hard to think of a more mouth-watering opener for the reigning champion as it prepares to defend its European crown.

Most of all, we should relish what may be the last chance to see Zidane on the international stage.

The Real Madrid midfielder has been tight-lipped about stepping down from the French team after the finals, but Zidane has already left an indelible mark on the sport.

Apart from the odd flash of temper that proves mortality, there is nothing to criticize about Zidane. He has everything and more, an artist at the peak or his game, a footballing magician, performing tricks that leave onlookers wondering how it happened.

Even watching the great man's warmup is worth the price of admission, seeing Zidane go through the repertoire of flicks, ball control and other things that the rest of us can only dream of and fail to repeat in our back garden.

Like every other country in the world, England has nobody to compare with Zidane, but in 18-year-old Wayne Rooney it has a forward who could make a similar impact to Michael Owen at France '98.

Rooney is raw talent. He has speed, strength and is fearless. Maybe, just maybe, Rooney will be the player to breach Les Bleus' defense.

The game has been given added spice -- as if it needed it -- with Santini's appointment at Tottenham, which he had hoped to keep secret until after Euro 2004.

France, concerned about the possibility of another 2002 blowout, had held back offering Santini an extension to his contract until after the finals.

Eager to secure his future, Santini agreed to join Spurs. "I shouldn't have to pay for things that happened in the past," was Santini's curt response to French hesitancy.

Santini's France contract expires on June 30 and he officially becomes a Tottenham employee on July 1, when Les Bleus could still be in the competition. If that is the case, they will have to agree compensation with Tottenham, which would be one of the more bizarre sideshows of Euro 2004.

While the English F.A. resolved Sven-Goran Eriksson's future a couple of months ago. France has only itself to blame for losing its coach.

"I'm not surprised, I kind of saw it coming," said fullback Willy Sagnol.

"England was clever enough to avoid this sort of thing."

England 1 France 0 so far then, but when it comes to football as opposed to politics it may be rather different. England's mission in Portugal could become Mission Impossible.

UEFA HAS SAID the Football Association is responsible for the behavior of all England fans who travel to Portugal.

Unfair, claims the F.A., which believes it should take responsibility only for those fans it has sold tickets to after the applicants were vetted on police records.

The F.A. claims it should not be accountable for those who bought tickets directly from UEFA on the Internet.

Four years ago England was given a yellow card by UEFA after trouble at Euro 2000, which erupted in Charleroi, Belgium, before and after the game against Germany.

Enough is enough, said European football's governing body. The rest of the continent is sick and tired at becoming an involuntary battleground for the great unwashed who follow "Ingerlund."

Because of the distance involved, the 2002 World Cup escaped the excesses of the Bulldog Bobbies in their red, white and blue shorts -- a symbol more of hating other countries than pride in their own.

Portugal, however, is much closer and the authorities understandably are bracing themselves for another invasion of English hooligans.

In fairness to the F.A., the police and the government, there is little more they can do. Around 2,000 fans are banned from traveling by court orders, while there will be strict controls at airports and borders.

Sadly, it may appeal to some mindless morons to get England banned and it must be hoped that Portugal keeps its promise by coming down hard on any offenders.

Privately, the F.A. will hope to avoid another flash point against Germany, but whatever the rights and wrongs, if there is significant trouble involving England followers, UEFA could this time show the red card.

The ramifications of that are too dire to even contemplate.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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