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Sunday, July 9, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

Eriksson lost the plot with World Cup squad


LONDON -- England losing in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. It's just like watching Brazil.

Christopher Davies

Four years ago, it was Brazil which ended England's World Cup hopes.

This time around it was the same coach, as Luiz Felipe Scolari completed his hat trick over England, a Euro 2004 victory by Big Phil's adopted Portugal proving to be the second of three wins over our oldest allies.

For England and coach Sven-Goran Eriksson it was the end of an error.

The Swede will be remembered with all the fondness of a parking control agent who has given you a ticket for being one minute over the time limit.

For £5 million a year, England supporters expected more than a badly balanced World Cup squad that seemed to be put together almost on a whim.

There were so many obvious errors it is remarkable that the warning lights were not flashing before Eriksson announced the names of the 23 players for Germany.

Michael Owen had not completed a competitive game all year because of a foot operation, and when he collapsed in the first minute against Sweden it was probably the result of pushing his body too far too quickly.

The knee injury will sideline him for the remainder of 2006 and one fears for a striker who relies on speed and sharpness.

Wayne Rooney was never going to be match fit after almost six weeks on the sidelines because of a foot injury.

He returned to lead England's attack, but the red mist that is rarely far from the Manchester United striker returned against Portugal as he trod on the most sensitive part of Ricardo Carvalho's groin and then pushed the petulant Cristiano Ronaldo, who would be the runaway winner of any Least Popular Player competition held in Britain.

Incidentally, the last competitive goal Rooney scored for England was against Croatia at Euro 2004.

What is interesting -- and worrying -- is the reason why referee Horacio Elizondo sent off Rooney.

When a player commits a dismissable offense the referee invariably produces the red card immediately. This is to ensure the offender leaves the field of play as soon as possible, before opponents can close in on him, while the referee also wants to show the public that immediate justice has been carried out.

Rooney was shown the red card only after he ill-advisedly pushed Ronaldo in the chest, a brainless act not least because the pair had been involved in a training ground bustup a couple of months earlier.

Hands-to-chest, unless with excessive force, is usually deemed a cautionable offense but it was only after Rooney's shove that the red card was shown.

Yet the official reason Rooney was sent off was given as violent conduct (which both offenses would have been) for the stamp on Carvalho.

It was almost as if someone, somewhere had told Elizondo that the initial foul had far more credibility as a red card than the push.

Surely not?

Rooney was off and England was soon to be out of the tournament, almost inevitably on penalties, its fifth shootout loss in its last eight major finals -- not the sort of consistency fans would want.

There was a sense of gloom about the outcome when Frank Lampard's first spot-kick was saved by Ricardo, who was also Portugal's shootout hero against England at Euro 2004.

English players lack the mental strength to win shootouts and, significantly, the only player to beat Ricardo was Owen Hargreaves who plays for Bayern Munich.

In its last five penalty shootouts, Germany has not only won them all, there has been only one failure in 24 spot-kick attempts.

Hargreaves, the subject of many "What's the point of Owen Hargreaves?" articles prior to the finals, was one of the few England players to emerge from the finals with any credit, and is sure to be part of Steve McClaren's team (with a new captain, probably John Terry following David Beckham's resignation) when Eriksson's successor officially takes over in August.

The brave decision and one the Swede did not make would be to drop Frank Lampard.

The Chelsea midfielder and Steven Gerrard have not played well together for England, neither having the discipline to hold back while the other attacks.

At Chelsea, Lampard has Claude Makelele doing the anchorman role, while at Liverpool Didi Hamman has been the midfielder "minder" allowing Gerrard to break.

Hargreaves should be the holding central midfield player, giving Gerrard the freedom to do what he does best.

Dropping Lampard, such a prolific goalscorer, may seem like madness but it is a long time since he reproduced his club form for his country.

But after all the inquests, England failed because it was not good enough.

Again.

TEAM OF THE TOURNAMENT: Buffon (Italy); Neill (Australia), Cannavaro (Italy), Ayala (Argentina), Grosso (Italy); Frings (Germany), Pirlo (Italy), Kaka (Brazil), Zidane (France); Klose (Germany), Podolski (Germany).

PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT: Italian captain Fabio Cannavaro -- despite being 178 cm -- in most respects was head and shoulders above the rest, the heart and soul of the Azzurri.

TRUE STARS OF THE TOURNAMENT: The German people whose friendliness helped to make the finals so memorable.

BEST SECRET WEAPON: England's Theo Walcott. The striker was Sven's secret weapon when the squad arrived in Germany, so secret that when the players came home the teenager was still a secret, no one knew anything about him as the Arsenal player did not see one second of game action.

BRAVEST CHOICE FOR BREAKFAST: This correspondent's chili scrambled eggs in Munich.

WORST CHOICE FOR BREAKFAST: See above.

WORST TASTE GOODWILL MESSAGE: President George W. Bush to the United States team before it played the Czech Republic: "You've been doing a great job in preparation, the whole country is behind you. Give 'em hell!"

BIGGEST PAIN THE FOLLOWING MORNING: The Dutch fan -- the worse for wear -- who, after the game against the Cote d'Ivoire, fell down 12 steps somehow managing to keep the orange flag aloft, got up and walked on as if nothing had happened.

BEST CHANT: Three World Cups and one world Pope -- German fans.

WORST TWO MINUTES OF A JOURNALIST'S WORLD CUP: The Irish reporter who, as he attempted to board a train, realized he had the taxi driver's black bag on top of his suitcase instead of his own -- an apple and sandwich instead of a laptop, cassette recorder, passport, camera.

He broke the Munich station 100-meter record, complete with suitcase, the taxi god dictating business would be slow at that time and the driver was still there, thanking the journalist for returning his lunch.

MOST SURREAL CONVERSATION: During the France-South Korea game a Korean player called Hu was cautioned. A journalist from Ukraine and one from Brazil had the following conversation (more or less) in English and you have to remember how it sounded as they spoke.

Ukraine: "Who was booked?"

Brazil: "Yes."

Ukraine: "No, who was booked?"

Brazil: "Yes he was."

Ukraine: "Who was?"

Brazil: "Yes."

Ukraine: "No, not yes. Who was booked? Which player?"

Brazil: "Hu."

Ukraine: "No, I am asking you."

Brazil: "I told you. Hu?"

Ukraine (to me by now) "Who was it who was booked?"

England: "Hu."

Brazil: "I told him."

Ukraine: "What number player?"

At that moment the fun and games ended. Shame.

MEANWHILE, back in England Lee Bowyer was fined £600 with £1,000 costs after pleading guilty to causing harassment, alarm or distress under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.

The Newcastle midfielder became involved in a scrap, little more than "handbags," with teammate Kieron Dyer during the game against Aston Villa in April 2000. The trouble lasted about five seconds. Bowyer was banned for a total of seven matches by the Football Association with fines of around £270,000.

Now the law of the land has punished Bowyer, too.

It is difficult to speak sympathetically about Bowyer, who has a race-related charge from an incident in a hamburger restaurant some years ago, but this is a completely disproportionate set of sanctions for the crime.

While not condoning what Bowyer did, Dyer was not hurt unlike some incidents of sly elbows to the face.

Nicola Reasbeck, chief crown prosecutor for Northumbria, said: "The criminal law doesn't cease to operate once you cross the touchline of a sports field. Neither does being disciplined by an employer or a sport governing body make an athlete immune to law."

Taking this to the extreme, every sending off for striking an opponent in football, rugby or any sport leaves the offender open to prosecution. There have been far, far worse examples of violence, notably in rugby union, with no criminal charges.

On this occasion, Bowyer can be forgiven for thinking that he has been a victim of his reputation rather than a natural sense of justice.

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


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