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Friday, July 9, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Long season has stars worn out for international play


LONDON -- Euro 2004 needed big names rather than long names to shine.

Christopher Davies

Almost a week after the journeymen of Greece humbled the superstars of Europe, it is likely that in the playground football kids still want to be Zinedine Zidane rather than Theo Zagorakis, Stelios Giannakopoulos or Georgios Seitaridis.

Greece deserves full praise for its unlikely achievement, which was masterminded by German coach Otto Rehhagel. However, whether coaches around the world are thinking "let's play like Greece" remains to be seen. In this respect, Greece may not be the word.

The Greek players carried out Rehhagel's game plans almost to perfection. Inferior players stopped superior opponents from playing, perspiration triumphed over inspiration and the Goliaths of European football were humbled not so much by David, but David's little brother.

Is this a sign of things to come?

Where expert coaching is more important than the players?

This column believes the galacticos and superstars of Europe have lost the appetite for international football. The idols are becoming idle when they pull on their country's shirt because they are tired physically and mentally after nine months of domestic and European club football.

Just about every leading player disappointed at Euro 2004, a worrying scenario but one which will be repeated at future major finals unless there is a drastic rethink about club football.

A significant factor behind Greece's success was the freshness of its players. Angelos Charisteas, who headed the winning goal against Portugal in the final last Sunday, had started only six games for Werder Bremen during the 2003-04 season.

Traianos Dellas, so impressive in the center of defense, is a fringe player at AS Roma.

It is a similar story for other members of the European champion's squad.

Milan Baros (Czech Republic), Wayne Rooney (England) and Ronaldo (Manchester United) were others to shine who had not experienced the 50-plus game slog Zidane, Henry and company did.

Having given their all for their clubs, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the superstars to peak again five or six weeks after the end of the domestic season. The big players are burning out, overplayed -- some say overpaid -- and we can expect more of the same at the 2006 World Cup.

The answer is a 16-team top division, but clubs are not going to agree to lose the income from two or four homes games each season to help their national team.

Why should they?

Clubs look after their interests and do not see the Zidanes as a species in need of protection. Indeed, they need the income from as many home matches as possible to pay the super wages demanded by those whose best football in June was seen in television commercials.

The alarm bells were ringing when FC Porto and AS Monaco reached the Champions League final in May.

Like Greece, they were well coached, with some outstanding individuals, but do not set the pulse racing as, say, Manchester United, Real Madrid or AC Milan can.

The Champions League has become the stage for the best football in the world. Just about every top player performs in UEFA's flagship competition, but coupled with the domestic program it leaves them drained by mid-May.

How else can the collective failure of players from Spain, Germany, and Italy be explained?

For England, David Beckham was anonymous apart from his penalty misses, Steven Gerrard slowed down as the competition progressed, while Michael Owen did not have the cutting edge seen in the past.

Euro 2004 will not be remembered with much fondness. Czech Republic 3, Holland 2, and Portugal's penalty shootout win over England were the only two standout games.

The tournament was summed up by the quote from Greece winger Giannakopoulos, who said as he held his winners medal: "I dedicate this to Bolton."

WAYNE ROONEY may be the best young striking talent in Europe but his spelling does not seem to match his shooting.

The Everton teenager has the name of his fiancee tattooed on his right shoulder -- "Coleen."

This was proudly displayed in the News of the World last Sunday, the Everton player's first in a series of exclusives in the gazette and its sister paper The Sun.

However, there seems to be a slight problem. An "L" of a problem in fact. Every other reference to his fiancee spells her name "Colleen" -- the accepted spelling of the name.

There appear to be two answers to this. A -- everyone has misspelled her name in the past, printing Colleen rather than Coleen. B -- the name is incorrectly tattooed on Rooney's shoulder. The smart money would be on B.

The tattoo could prove to be the least of Rooney's worries. This column can see shades of Paul Gascoigne in the way Rooney is being handled -- too much exposure, too soon, with business advisers thinking short-term bucks rather than long-term earnings.

Many people made a lot of money off Gascoigne, who is essentially a good guy but has not been able to handle the mental and emotional side of being a top player. Unfortunately, Gascoigne does not have the rewards his talent deserved, but some have earned a disproportionate amount on his back.

Young players these days need people to look after their interests, not those of the agents.

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


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