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Saturday, April 2, 2005

PREMIER REPORT

English media in dilemma over Eriksson and national team


LONDON -- England continued its march toward the 2006 World Cup finals, but the impression is that its progress has left many in the hack pack who report the national team with a dilemma.

Christopher Davies

While the sports journalists covering England want the team to be successful, a significant number would like head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson to fail. Big problem.

The knives have been out for the Swede for a long time, the vitriol gathering momentum when Eriksson signed a new contract, allegedly worth £4 million a year, in 2004. Far too much, we were told yet rightly or wrongly, than is his market value.

If the F.A. wanted to keep him, which it did because: (a) it believes he is a good coach and (b) there was no other realistic successor, then that is what it had to pay Eriksson.

We all have our market value. Sports editors earn more than reporters while some sports editors earn more than others. Some managers earn more than others.

Too much?

It is subjective, but when the Football Association lured Eriksson from Lazio he was on a good salary in Rome that, understandably, England had to improve upon.

If the F.A. had gone for, say, Alan Curbishley of Charlton instead of Eriksson it would not have had to pay him so much.

It is market forces that dictate such matters and many of the columnists who mention Eriksson's salary at every given opportunity are themselves at the higher end of journalism's pay scale. But they aren't earning too much, of course. In fact, probably not enough.

England's 4-0 win over Northern Ireland and 2-0 defeat of Azerbaijan means Team Eriksson has 16 points from five wins and a draw (in Austria).

No country in the European qualifiers has done better after six matches. Whether England wins the 2006 World Cup remains to be seen -- it probably won't -- but so far, so good yet any press praise is too often grudging because it is also a pat on the back for "the overpaid" Eriksson.

It is a similar story with David Beckham who was, by general consensus, past it and should be replaced as captain. Beckham was Man of the Match against Azerbaijan on Wednesday, scoring a fine goal, but the headlines were about Becks proving his critics wrong -- the critics being mainly the people who wrote the subsequent stories.

Earlier this year the same critics were calling for Manchester City's Shaun Wright-Phillips to replace Beckham. The Manchester City midfielder played alongside Beckham in February's 0-0 draw against Holland and had a nightmare, looking a fish out of international water and was replaced after 61 minutes.

It is either black or white with England, mugs or world-beaters, superstars or super-flops. England is probably one of the 10 best teams in the world and normally reaches the quarterfinals of major competitions before losing, usually to Germany or Argentina.

England should reach the last eight of Germany 2006 because it has a strong, settled side with most of the players at or approaching their peak. Paul Robinson is not in the class of Gianluigi Buffon (Italy), Peter Cech (Czech Republic) or Victor Casillas (Spain), but it is not a vintage era for European goalkeepers at the moment.

The back four of Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell or John Terry and Ashley Cole has added protection from Steven Gerrard, the anchor-man in midfield. On the right is Beckham, on the left is Joe Cole with Frank Lampard the central attacking midfielder. Unopposed in attack are Wayne Rooney and Owen.

As well as England has done in the qualifying program, Poland is breathing down its necks on 15 points. Group Six may yet be decided when Poland visits England in the final fixture next October.

If both countries win their next three games then a victory for Poland in England, which won 2-1 in Katowice last September, could send England to the playoffs.

The eight group winners and the two best runners-up qualify automatically for the finals -- the other six second-placed teams will playoff. At the moment it looks like the runnerup in Group Six will be one of the best two, but as ever, such matters will be a photo-finish.

Wales and Northern Ireland, also in Group Six, are out of the reckoning as is Scotland in Group Five.

The Republic of Ireland is in the tightest group of all, with France, Switzerland and Israel making Group Four a four-way battle.

None of those countries has beaten each other yet and Ireland may look back on Israel's stoppage time equalizer in Tel Aviv last Saturday with regret.

If any of the leading four drops points against Cyprus or the Faroe Islands it could spell the end of their qualification chances, but with home ties against France and Switzerland to come in the autumn, Ireland is still in a strong position to reach its second successive finals.

* * * CHELSEA FEARED it would not have a fair hearing when UEFA's control and disciplinary body met on Thursday to rule on misconduct charges against the club, manager Jose Mourinho, assistant manager Steve Clarke and security official Les Miles.

The Premiership leader felt that some public statements by William Gaillard, UEFA's director of communications, would prejudice its case.

Many will no doubt feel that Chelsea and its personnel did not receive fair punishments. Chelsea was fined $62,800 and Mourinho handed a two-match touchline ban plus a $16,700 fine over the Anders Frisk affair. Clarke and Miles were reprimanded.

Chelsea had alleged that Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard visited the Swedish referee at halftime during the first leg of their Champions League first knockout round tie at Nou Camp on Feb. 23.

"What he said was a pack of lies, very serious lies and it is not the first time," said Rijkaard while UEFA had accused Chelsea of making false declarations and "deliberately creating a poisoned and negative ambience."

However, the independent disciplinary committee did not feel the offenses were particularly serious.

Mourinho will not be able to enter the dressing room or technical area for the two forthcoming Champions League quarterfinal ties against Bayern Munich, but while the Portuguese will think he has been treated badly -- he never thinks he does anything wrong -- he has been let off extremely lightly.

Volker Roth, the chairman of UEFA's committee, said "people like Mourinho are the enemy of football." It is difficult not to conclude that by letting Mourinho, Clarke and Miles off so lightly the control and disciplinary body is the enemy of fair play.

A two-game ban was the absolute minimum Mourinho could have expected and that's what he got.

But why only a reprimand for Clarke and Miles?

What did Mourinho do that was worse than Clarke and Miles?

How can only one in effect be found guilty?

Mourinho, Clarke and Miles doubted the integrity and honesty of Rijkaard and Frisk, lying about a non-existent halftime get-together. Obviously, the disciplinary and control body doesn't regard such things as particularly serious.

In some respects, Mourinho's worst crime was what he said about Frisk before the second leg. Speaking on the eve of Chelsea's second leg against Barcelona at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho said: "My first point is that we need to play better than Barcelona, but my second point is to have a referee without influence on the result because, in the first game, the referee had a direct influence on the result. You ask me who I would have wanted tomorrow night [as referee], I would tell you -- Anders Frisk. Because maybe he would help us in the same way he helped them."

He seems to have escaped any charge or punishment for that.

Would Frisk have received the threats to himself and his family that prompted the Swede's premature retirement had Mourinho not spoken out like that?

UEFA and the Football Association go on about protecting referees . . . telling managers and coaches not to doubt their honesty or impartiality . . . and when they do this, nothing happens.

Disgraceful.

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


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