Peter Young
4 June 2002
England Football Online
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Unpopularity Contest

Tuesday, 4 June 2002 - Ahead of the much-awaited World Cup clash between England and Argentina, a poll has revealed the team Argentines would least like to see hoist the World Cup is England.  Likewise, amigos.  In more than 50 years of following international football, we've felt compelled to cheer for England's old rival, Germany, only twice--in the final matches at the World Cup 1986 and 1990 tournaments, when they met Argentina.  Our sentiments are based solely on what we've seen on the field of play, nothing more.   

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Lucky Sven?

Thursday, 21 February 2002 - The English football media generally touted Sven-Göran Eriksson's selection of Aston Villa forward Darius Vassell to the England squad for the match against Holland last week as a surprise.  They also professed surprise when he was given a starting role.  And after he scored a wonderful bicycle kick goal on his debut and displayed other promising signs, some commentators said Eriksson had been lucky again.

Those same pundits know that for more than a year now Eriksson and his faithful assistant Tord Grip have kept an exhausting schedule watching matches featuring present and prospective England players.  Grip even fell ill briefly after carrying his dedication to the job too far.  They've done it for a purpose, of course, and Vassell made that purpose evident last week.  Eriksson or Grip or both plainly noticed something about Vassell they wanted.  

Luck had nothing to do with Vassell's selection to the squad, his assignment as starting forward, his goal or his general performance.  It's all down to hard work and intelligent preparation, which pay off in any endeavour, including football.  Crediting it to luck is an insult to a coaching duo whose work ethic is superb and paying off for England.  But please don't overdo it again, Tord.  We're fond of you and, what's more, we need you.

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Another Sad Time for Football

Monday, 18 February 2002 - It's another sad time for football as three of the great names of the 1940's and 50's left us.  

First was Zizinho, the artistic forward regrettably remembered most for Brazil's 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup finals at Rio de Janeiro's Estádio Maracană.  Born as Thomaz Soăres da Silva, Zizinho was nonetheless voted best player at that tournament, the Italian press dubbing him the "Leonardo da Vinci of football."  Altogether he scored 30 goals in 53 appearances for Brazil between 1942 and 1957.   He was not, however, in the Brazil team that met England for the first time, at Wembley Stadium in 1956, and went down to defeat, 4-2.  He died at 80 on Thursday, 7 February 2002 in Niterói near Rio de Janeiro, following a heart attack

Next was the marvellous Hungarian centre-forward Nandor Hidegkuti, whose mobility so confused England in their first loss to an overseas side on home soil, as the Magical Magyars swept to a remarkable 6-3 victory at Wembley Stadium on a foggy afternoon in November, 1953.  Nando got a hat-trick that day and scored again in the return match in Budapest the following May when Hungary destroyed England 7-1 in their worst loss ever.  He also played in Hungary's devastating 3-2 loss to West Germany in the World Cup 1954 final in Switzerland and retired following the World Cup 1958 final tournament.  Altogether, he scored 39 goals in 68 appearances for Hungary between 1945 and 1958, most of his caps and goals coming after he reached 30.  Ill for some time with heart and lung problems, he died at 80 on Thursday, 14 February 2002 in Kutvolgyi Hospital in Budapest.

Finally, Sir Walter Winterbottom, England's first and longest-serving manager, died at 89 on Saturday, 16 February 2002 at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford.  

Most of the tributes have emphasised Winterbottom's rather professorial air, his gentle nature and his decency, and they have recalled that he presided over England's infamous 1-0 loss to the U.S.A. at the World Cup 1950 finals and the pair of losses to the great Hungarian team of the early 1950's.  All true enough.  Winterbottom was at the helm when disappointing World Cup showings and friendly results shattered England's claim to world football supremacy.  That claim had long been illusion, however; decades of complacency and isolation from competitive international play had produced a tactical sterility and rigidity in English football which the Hungarians and others cruelly exposed.  To hold Winterbottom somehow responsible is tantamount to blaming the messenger for the message, for he was far ahead of anyone else in English football in recognising the weaknesses in English football and in setting about correcting them.   

Winterbottom was one of the most influential figures in 20th Century English football.  In fact, almost single-handedly, he dragged English football into the 20th Century.  As national director of coaching and then national team manager from 1946 to 1962, he made coaching and tactical awareness acceptable to a tradition-bound football community, not least the players themselves, reluctant to accept their value, led England from self-imposed isolation into competitive international play, established a national coaching structure which vastly improved the quality of play at all levels, established the England youth and under-23 teams, and laid the foundations for England's World Cup 1966 victory.  All this he accomplished in the face of formidable obstacles, primarily a reactionary football establishment that resisted almost everything he tried to do. 

Yet the English football community has always associated Winterbottom with the decline in England's footballing status, and it treated him disgracefully when he eventually relinquished his national football posts following the World Cup 1962 finals.  He was clearly the best man to take over from Sir Stanely Rous as Football Association secretary--his experience, abilities and personal qualities admirably suited him for the post--but he was rudely shunted aside.  Pushed out of football, he went on to play a key role with the General Council for Physical Education and became executive director of the Sports Council.  Significantly, while he received the O.B.E. for services to football in 1963 and the C.B.E. in 1972, his knighthood in 1978 was awarded for services to sport in general.  The English football community, including the media, largely ignored him for the past 40 years.  Even in death it is doubtful he will get his due for his contributions to English football.  

The English football establishment's capacity for ingratitude to its most faithful servants remains astonishing, matched, in terms of disgrace, only by its parallel failure to honour football's past.  More on that later.

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Remembering Billy Wright

Sunday, 3 February 2002 - Cancer took the life of England and Wolverhampton Wanderers legend Billy Wright in 1994 as he was working on his autobiography.  Now Norman Giller, the well-known football journalist and author who was helping Wright with the book, is turning it into a biography to be published later this year.  Giller is collecting fan tributes on a website he has set up to honour Wright and promote the book, which is authorised by Wright's widow, Joy, one of the singing Beverley Sisters.

Every England fan, no matter what age, knows Billy Wright's name.  But Giller is surely right in his claim that not nearly enough fuss is made about Wright and his achievements.  Wright was the first player in the world to earn 100 caps, finishing with 105.  He captained England 90 times, a still-standing world record equalled only by Bobby Moore. He led England at three World Cup final tournaments, another record.  But surely his most impressive record--one that will never be broken--is his 70 successive appearances for England, all of them as captain.  

Wright's first cap came in the first England match after the Second War, the 7-2 thrashing of Northern Ireland on 28 September 1946.  He appeared in 33 straight England matches, missed two in in November, 1950, played two, missed one in May, 1951, and then played 70 straight from 3 October 1951 to his last match, the 8-1 trouncing of the U.S.A. on 28 May 1959.  

From the start of the 1946-47 season until the end of the 1958-59 season--13 seasons in all--Wright missed only three England matches, and the three he missed all came in the same season, 1950-51.

Wright started as a hard-working right-half.  Following a switch in position at World Cup 1954 in Switzerland, he became a highly effective centre-half (the English term for central defender since the advent of the W-M formation, which moved the centre-halfback from his midfield role between the wing-halfbacks to a defending position between the fullbacks).  He compensated for his lack of heighth with intelligence, superb positional play and composure.  

Wright's aura transcended his footballing talents.  It is difficult to convey to fans under age 50 what he meant to English football in the bleak era immediately following the war.  When we thought of the England team, we immediately thought of Billy Wright; the two were synonymous.  He was a wonderful sportsman, never sent off or cautioned on the pitch and a gentleman off it.  He was universally admired.  He was the most prominent symbol of English football and its greatest ambassador for more than a decade.  He stood for all that was best about football and, indeed, about England.

Giller's book, Billy Wright: A Hero for All Seasons, should bring this great player and grand man to life for a new generation of England fans. 

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More World Cup This and That:  Copy-Cat Argentina

Saturday, 2 February 2002 - At first blush, it appeared Argentina's economic crisis was disrupting the national side's preparations for the World Cup 2002 final tournament, where they will face England, Sweden and Nigeria in group play.  

On Wednesday Argentina and Costa Rica cancelled a friendly match which had been scheduled for 13 February.  The match was originally set for a neutral venue, Miami in the U.S.A., but Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa later insisted on Buenos Aires as the venue.  Costa Rica refused to agree to the change.  The change Bielsa proposed would, of course, have saved Argentina travel expenses.  

On Friday Argentina cancelled another away match, a friendly against Norway scheduled for 27 March in Oslo.  The Norwegian football association is urging FIFA to force Argentina to play the match as planned on the ground Argentina entered a binding agreement to play in Oslo.  Argentina have one other known World Cup warmup match, an away friendly against Germany on 17 April.

Meanwhile, the scouts Sweden have employed to spy on Argentina and Nigeria are complaining about the failure of both teams to disclose the details of their World Cup warmup matches.  In Argentina's case, at least, the failure to disclose the details may be because there are none to disclose.  

Argentina's sparse pre-World Cup fixture list may not be due to economic troubles, however.  It may simply reflect ongoing efforts to arrange the most advantageous fixtures possible.  El Clarin, the Argentine newspaper, which had expressed concern over the lack of preparatory friendlies, reports today that Argentina are trying to arrange a friendly against Wales later this month, when they were to play Costa Rica, and Cameroon on 27 March, when they were to play Norway.  

The match against Wales would be played at the Millennium Stadium in Caerdydd and give Argentina experience in playing under a roof.  The World Cup stadium in Sapporo, Japan, where they will play England, has a roof.  England have already asked the KNVB (the Royal Dutch Football Association) to close the roof of the Amsterdam ArenA when they play Holland there on 13 February.

El Clarin says the Argentina Football Association prefers Cameroon over Norway as a warmup opponent.  England already have arranged a friendly against Cameroon in the expectation it will be valuable for the World Cup group  match against Nigeria.  If Argentina are able to arrange the Cameroon fixture, it will be the second time one of England's World Cup group opponents have played copy-cat.  After England arranged a World Cup warmup friendly against Paraguay--in the expectation it would be useful for the World Cup match against Argentina--Sweden did the same. 

That England are being copied is an encouraging sign.  The Football Association has done its planning so well that the opposition is following suit.  

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Learning Curve?

Friday, 1 February 2002 - We were struck by the juxtaposition of headlines in the Electronic Telegraph's England under-21 team archive.  

The earlier entry:  "21 Dec : On the Spot: Terry's learning curve paying off for Chelsea."

Immediately above that:  "04 Jan : Terry arrested in club incident"

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World Cup This and That:  Nigeria and Sweden

Friday, 1 February 2002 - Somewhere near the middle of the last century, Walter Winterbottom, England's first manager, said that an African team would win the World Cup by century's end.  He was wrong about that, of course, but his prediction may yet prove to be off by only a decade or so.  

Those English football writers pooh-poohing Nigeria, one of England's group opponents at the World Cup, may become candidates for our Media Hall of Shame.  Several have written that England have nothing  to fear from Nigeria, noting, among other things, that Nigeria have had trouble putting the ball in the net at the African Nations Cup.  Poor finishing, they called it.  Observers on the scene have written that all the best African teams have tightened up their defences considerably since the last World Cup.  This is an ominous development because the strongest African teams have had world class attacking capabilities for the past 15 years, but have been betrayed by poor defending when they met the strongest European and South American teams.  What the African teams have achieved despite slender and sometimes nonexistent resources, a paucity of good coaching and continual difficulty in assembling their best players is remarkable.

While Nigeria have improved on defence, they are still capable of ball artistry comparable to South America's best.  England should be able to beat Nigeria, but only a fool would write them off as nothing to fear.  Cameroon had all England in fear in the World Cup 1990 quarterfinals when only a late Gary Lineker penalty kick put England through to extra-time and only another Lineker penalty kick enabled England to advance to the semi-finals.  On that occasion, Cameroon's superb attacking skills had England's defence in jitters, and only Cameroon's naive defending saved England from elimination.  Nigeria could be World Cup 2002's version of World Cup 1990's Cameroon--similar attacking capabilities but a much better defence.  Nigeria themselves had eventual finalist Italy on the ropes in the round of 16 teams at World Cup 1994; only Roberto Baggio's 89th minute goal sent Italy to extra-time and only his penalty kick goal enabled Italy to advance.  At World Cup 1998, Nigeria topped their group with victories over Spain and Bulgaria before crashing out to Denmark in the round of 16 teams, 4-1.

Meanwhile, Nigeria and three of the other four African World Cup teams--Cameroon, Senegal and South Africa--have gone through to the quarterfinals in the African Nations Cup.  Tunisia, unable to score in a difficult group with Senegal, Egypt and Zambia, was the only World Cup qualifying team failing to make the cut.  

England have lined up Paraguay for a friendly World Cup preparation match on 17 April at Anfield Road.  Not to be outdone, Sweden, England's first World Cup group opponent, have now arranged to play Paraguay in Stockholm on 17 May.  Both England and Sweden have chosen Paraguay to help them prepare for their matches against Argentina.  Paraguay advanced to the World Cup finals by finishing fourth in South America's huge single qualifying group.  While they are not nearly as strong as Argentina, which finished atop the group, Paraguay will give both England and Sweden a taste of Argentina's style of play--artistry and flair in attack combined with discipline and hardness in defence.

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Carragher Must be Punished 

Monday, 28 January 2001 - There’s a groundswell of support today for Jamie Carragher, the Liverpool and England midfielder who retaliated against Arsenal fans who had thrown coins at him in Sunday's F.A. Cup match at Arsenal Stadium by throwing one of them back into the crowd.  Several football commentators are saying he was provoked and that the Football Association should be lenient in punishing him

Carragher has apologised, of course, but he must be punished, and the punishment must be severe enough that he considers it unpleasant.  It is already clear he will forfeit his place in the England squad which will face Holland on 13 February.  He will be under suspension from league play then, and it is F.A. policy that players under suspension will not be selected for an England squad.

Look at it from the viewpoint of the England team.  Carragher’s moment of fury displayed precisely the kind of impetuosity that got David Beckham sent off when he lashed out with his foot at Diego Simeone in retaliation for a foul at the start of the second half in England’s quarter-final against Argentina at World Cup 1998 in France.  Some of the reaction to Beckham over the following season was way over the top, of course, but that does not alter the fact that he ruined England’s chances of winning the match and helped bring an early end to his team-mates’ two-year World Cup campaign.  England cannot afford players who indulge in temper-tantrums that carry a price so steep.

Carragher must learn to discipline himself, as Beckham eventually did.  And the best way to ensure he does so is to make it clear to him that such temperamental outbursts bring unpleasant consequences, among them putting his England place in jeopardy.

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The Alan Shearer Non-Story

Saturday, 26 January 2002 - Headlines this week said Sven-Göran Eriksson had left the door open for Alan Shearer to return to the England team.  Shearer has since put a lid on speculation, saying he has no intention of returning, that the reason he’s doing so well for his club is because he no longer plays and trains for England, that his body needs the rest he now gets when England train and play.  But it was a non-story from the start anyway, created by the media for the media.

A television reporter asked Eriksson whether he was considering selecting Shearer in view of his fine club form.  Eriksson replied that Shearer had taken himself out of consideration for the England team.  The reporter said Shearer had said “maybe.”  Eriksson responded that in that case he also said “maybe.”  That exchange, and perhaps others like it, became headlines which implied Eriksson was actively considering Shearer’s selection and practically had Shearer back in England uniform.

It never would have happened even had Shearer been willing.  Part of Eriksson’s job is football diplomacy, and he’s good at it.  Of course he wasn’t going to show disrespect for one of England’s football icons.  And so his response was the noncommittal “maybe.”

 But anyone who has the slightest knowledge of football knows Shearer’s return would disrupt everything Eriksson has accomplished with the team over the past year.  Indeed, for the last two years before his retirement from international play, Shearer’s presence prevented a young and vibrant England team’s development.  The English football media surely knew the story was misleading, but ran it anyway. 

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England Stars Reach their Peak Year

Monday, 21 January 2002 - Two active England players, both Manchester United stars, celebrate birthdays today.  Nick Butt is 27 and Phil Neville 25.  It has long been said that 27 is the age at which most footballers are at their peak, and these birthdays remind us that the crop of young Manchester United players who entered the England fold in the mid-1990's are now reaching their peak year, just in time for the World Cup.  

Besides Butt, David Beckham will be 27 on 2 May,  Paul Scholes was 27 on 16 November, and Gary Neville will be 27 on 18 February.  By the time World Cup 2006 rolls around, they will be in their early 30's, and so it is probably now or never for these players.  

Beckham has said he wants to captain England for 10 years, but that won't happen.  Today's international football is played at too fast a pace and is too demanding physically for most players over 30.  

Only exceptional physical specimens or players who rely on guile and positioning rather than speed and strength stand a chance of lasting beyond that.  Teddy Sheringham is such an exception, and, barring a spate of injuries to forwards, the most he can expect in competitive matches is a substitute appearance.

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Football Loses Vavá and Jeff Astle

Sunday, 20 January 2002 -  We were saddened this weekend to hear of the deaths on Saturday of two international footballers.  

First came Saturday's news that the Brazilian legend Vavá had died in a Rio de Janeiro clinic at 67 of heart failure.  Vavá was one of Brazil's stars at the first two World Cup tournaments they won, in 1958 in Sweden, when he was moved from inside-left to centre-forward to make room for Pele, and in 1962 in Chile.  Strong, quick and fearless no matter how rugged the play became, he was celebrated as "o Leăo da Copa" [the Lion of the Cup] for the opportunistic goals he scored in crucial World Cup matches, among them one against France in the 1958 semi-final, two against Sweden in the 1958 final, two against Chile in the 1962 semi-final and one against Czechoslovakia in the 1962 final.  With Pele and West Germany's Paul Breitner, Vavá is one of only three players to have scored in two World Cup final matches, and he stands alone as the only player to score in two consecutive World Cup final matches.  Nine of his goals came in his 11 World Cup matches at two tournaments.  Altogether he scored 15 times in 22 appearances for Brazil spread over 12 years from 1952 to 1964.  

Sometimes listed in the match summaries under his real name, Edvaldo Izidio Neto, he faced England three times.  The first was the scoreless draw at World Cup 1958, the second the 3-1 Brazil victory at World Cup 1962, in which he scored Brazil's winning goal after having another disallowed, and the last the 5-1 Brazil win at Estádio Maracană in the 1964 Taca das Naçoes (Nations' Cup)  celebrating the Brazilian football association's 50th anniversary. 

On Sunday came the news that Jeff Astle had died unexpectedly Saturday night, apparently of natural causes.  He was only 59.  A great goalscoring centre-forward with West Bromwich Albion and superb in the air, Astle was never able to make his mark at the international level.  

His abbreviated England career--five appearances, no goals--is remembered for his miss from a few yards in front of an open goal after he came on as a substitute for the last 35 minutes with Brazil leading 1-0 at Estadio Jalisco in Guadlajara, Mexico at World Cup 1970.  Whether in the stadium or in front of the millions of television sets tuned in around the globe, watching fans thought it was much easier to score than to miss, perhaps overlooking the tension-ridden atmosphere in which the match was played.  It pitted the reigning World Cup champions against the favourites, it was one of the finest World Cup matches ever played, and had Astle managed to score, things might well have gone very differently for him.  

As it was, the several chances he created for his team-mates that day--also missed--won him a starting position in the next match, the 1-0 win against Czechoslovakia that allowed England to advance to the quarterfinals and their extra-time 3-2 loss to West Germany.  But he went scoreless against Czechoslovakia, too, and that was the end of his international career.