Mad Dutch and Englishmen

Four to go…

An obscene number of countries embarked on the 1998 World Cup road and only four remain. By this time next week the 1998 World Cup champions will be crowned. Brazil, Holland, France and Croatia are the challengers and the winners may be harder to predict that you might think. Four weeks ago I said that Brazil would be head and shoulders above everyone else and would stroll to the title. So far that looks the likely outcome. And as for my dark horse tips? Well, Holland hung in there but England, Norway and Spain made early exits. So what of the remaining teams?

Brazil

Damn, they’ve been good. Without even raising a sweat, Brazil have powered their way into the semis scoring 13 goals in the process. Their second phase annihilation of fellow South Americans, Chile, was breathtaking and watching the textured skills of Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Leonardo in the battling quarter-final win over Denmark was sheer enjoyment.

Holland

They have been somewhat the surprise package as they do seriously look like they could win it. When describing them as dark horses I emphasised that I still didn’t think they were capable of beating the best team in the competition. It seems now that they are. Bergkamp has been the best player in the tournament and his goal against Argentina the best of the competition. Davids has been on song and Overmars and Wonk have weighed in with useful performances too. The only question marks lie with their defence with Stam and De Boer looking vulnerable too often against quality players. Stam has been a real disappointment and I wonder about the wisdom of spending £10m on the boy. Time will tell whether Ferguson has made a booboo but one feels that won’t be the case – surely not after the Cole debacle…

France

The host nation have stumbled into the semi-final following a golden goal win over a resolute Paraguay side and a penalty shoot-out win over the moderate Italians. Now they have been given the handiest opponent in the unfancied Croatians and have a real chance of going to the final. Scoring goals has been the problem against the better teams. They hammered in goals left, right and centre against Saudi Arabia and South Africa but only produced one goal in the last 240 minutes of action. Much will depend on Zidane in midfield as he seems to have that touch of imagination that could unlock an organised defence.

Croatia

Who would have thought it? The 3-0 win over Germany rather flattered them but nobody could begrudge them their place with the elite considering the devestating history of the nation. I was actually at Old Trafford for the 1996 European Championships quarter-final between the two teams when Germany won 2-1 and Croatia were a very undisciplined and ragged outfit. But they have come a long way and have real quality in Jarni, Boban, Asanovic and Stanic. They will put nothing short of 100% into the match with France and football’s biggest prize is just two games away for them.

So who will win?

How about this – Brazil and Croatia will have to settle for the 3rd/4th place play-off game. Holland and France will advance by the odd goal in each semi-final. Holland will win the 1998 World Cup with a golden goal – 2-1. I have been hugely impressed with the Dutch and I would love to see them win the World Cup for the first time. Infact I have such conviction about this that I will visit Ladbrokes tomorrow and ask them to take my money. I’m sure they will have little hesitation.

Don’t cry for me Alan Shearer!

I’m rather disappointed with the reaction of the England players, manager and fans following their heroic but fruitless efforts against Argentina. Believe me, it is tough for an Irishman to have sympathy for an England football team but when Batty missed that crucial kick I shook my head in disbelief. They had battled so well and limited Argentina to so few chances that it seemed a shame that they went out in such dramatic fashion.

But then it was all spoiled as anyone within earshot was blamed for the defeat. First of all the Danish referee came in for extreme criticism. ‘We were playing 12 men’, said Shearer. ‘But this isn’t a time for looking for excuses…’, said Hoddle after making about five excuses mostly centering on decisions he felt were wrong. And what were those decisions that they were pissed with?

Well the Argentina penalty was never a penalty, the free kick leading to Argentina’s second goal was never a foul, England didn’t get a penalty in extra time when a defender handled in the box, Beckham shouldn’t have been sent off for violent conduct but rather given a yellow card and a pat on the head. I couldn’t believe all that. No mention of Owen diving in the box for England’s penalty, Adams raising his hands to the ball at the end of normal-time, several incorrect offside decisions that went against Argentina.

And then Bobby Charlton, Alex Ferguson and others complained about the cheating and diving that infiltrated the competition. How strange it is that they failed to address the fact that Paul Scholes blatantly did the very same thing twice during the World Cup and Michael Owen could very much be accused of the same thing against Argentina. Apparently it’s disgraceful that players should try to get other players booked or sent off. But when Shearer does the same thing , that’s perfectly acceptable. Of course, Brian Moore and Kevin Keegan didn’t acknowledge any of this. Typically.

It really grates with some players and fans that England are not the best team in the world and that is why so many Celts (for example) are delighted to see them go out. Even last night on the TV we hear John Motson talking about how England could have been playing in Lyon had they beaten Romania and had they beaten Croatia in the second phase. I mean talk about clutching at straws. Life goes on and the four best teams are left. Why is it so hard to get over?

No surprises

Mr Beckham didn’t surprise me with his stupidity against Argentina. Even though he played particularly well against Colombia, he struggled painfully against a talented midfield and he was having a stinker when two minutes into the second half his petulant kick was punished by referee, Kim Nielsen. I don’t actually think it cost England the game. I think it rather gave them a better chance.

With the exception of Michael Owen, the difference in class between the two teams was becoming more obvious all the time. If England had played with just three at the back in the second half it was only a matter of time before the Argentinians breached the back line. As it was, England were forced to play with a very deep back line and Argentina were painfully short of ideas.

The hysterical reaction to Beckham’s mistake (as stupid as it was) was typical of the hypocrisy amongst the fans and media. They bayed for Beckham’s inclusion in the team despite the fact that his immaturity and insufficiencies as an international player was clear to me (as I have written before). Beckham’s sending off benefited the manager and the brave but unlucky players who missed the penalties. The fact that Hoddle’s system still looks out of place at the highest level was forgotten about.

The signings begin

Back home now. Tottenham finally managed to fill that dodgy left-back position. 27-year old Italian defender, Paolo Tramezzani, joined for £1.35m and maybe we can finally put Clive Wilson and Justin Edinburgh out to pasture. Whether this fellow is any good or not is another thing but so far I have been impressed with Christian Gross’ other major signing, Moussa Saib. With only about 5-6 weeks before the start of the league campaign, more signings are needed in central defence and up front. I am hoping that they will be sooner rather than later.

And finally…

The funniest moment of the World Cup so far has not occurred on any pitch or in any dressing room. It happened in a commentators booth. Poor old Kevin Keegan. Following on from his classic line with two minutes to go in the Romania/England game (‘only one team is going to win this now’), he put his foot in it again as Brian Moore asked the rhetorical question, ‘is David Batty going to score?’. ‘Yes’, Keegan confidently declared. Maybe that is why Newcastle blew that 12-point lead.

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