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European football facing a new order

By Kevin McCarra

LISBON, JUNE 29. With second sight having failed most pundits, we are left with a tournament of second thoughts. The composition of the semifinals is unexpected and the names of the key figures come as almost as great a surprise.

It was easy to envisage Pavel Nedved thriving for the Czech Republic but no one, for example, had imagined Helder Postiga slaying England.

The striker had certainly not worn himself to a frazzle at Spurs, but it is baffling that his energy should have been applied to a headed equaliser against England and an arrogantly dinked penalty in the shoot-out.

Deco, a former team-mate at Porto and now with Portugal, argues that Postiga was too bold in moving to White Hart Lane aged 20.

"If he had stayed at Porto for one or two more years he would have arrived in England more mature," said Deco. "He has wonderful qualities and he showed that in the way he took his penalty against England, I could never do that. I think he is going to be one of the best forwards in Europe in the next few years."

If that claim takes a little digesting there is a lot to be swallowed from a competition with Milan Baros as its leading scorer — he mustered one goal for his club last season. There have been indications at Liverpool that the attacker could have a bright future, but no one guessed it would start quite as soon as this.

The natural order has been overturned and Fifa's ranking system is looking groggy. The single side in the world's top 10 to have reached the semifinals here is Holland. Apart from that the only wrangling remaining is over whose humiliation is the most profound.

Was it worse to be France, second to Brazil on the planet, and go out in the quarterfinals, or Spain (third) who did not even survive the group stage? The departure of Germany (eighth) was less mysterious since they only held that slot after defying their own obvious mediocrity to reach the last World Cup final. A run like that could not happen twice for Rudi Voeller's squad.

There were reservations about Italy's prospects at Euro 2004 as well and Giovanni Trapattoni did not deserve a second chance after the World Cup loss to South Korea two years ago.

England, too, eventually disappointed at Euro 2004, even if Deco considers it bad luck that Sven-Goran Eriksson's team should have come up against the hosts.

For all that, England are ranked 13th in the world and Portugal just 22nd. Only Holland, fifth globally and therefore the third best team in Europe, have given Fifa's evaluations any credence.

The participation of the Czech Republic (11th) in the last four is not too surprising but they never anticipated facing Greece (35th) at such a juncture. The excuses are already being marshalled, with a convenient revival of the 2002 plea that the stars of the big nations were simply exhausted after serving their high-powered clubs.

That claim does not work this year, not with Porto giving the host team its vigorous core despite competing fiercely for every available trophy and winning the Champions League. It might be true that several of Otto Rehhagel's Greece squad have seen little action for their clubs, but that reflects a lack of genuine quality that should not be offset by the fact that they are simply feeling perky at the moment.

In any case, the Dutch have not drooped despite the fact that many of their players are on the payrolls of Europe's mighty, demanding clubs. "Holland are probably the hardest team we could play at this tournament," said Deco, with chastening words for England.

The one characteristic shared by the survivors at Euro 2004 is that their players are drawn from clubs all across the continent, where travel has provided them with a football education and added maturity. By contrast, Germany and Italy drew their squads entirely from within their domestic leagues.

England's situation was similar, with just David Beckham and Owen Hargreaves working abroad, while Fernando Morientes, on loan at Monaco, was the one man who had to be summoned from abroad by Spain.

Meanwhile the world comes to the Premiership, Serie A, La Liga and, to a lesser extent, the Bundesliga. The native footballers therefore have the ready opportunity to broaden their experience by getting to know the overseas signings at their clubs. It is impossible to accept that the native footballers in Europe's proudest leagues will never again coalesce into a trophy-winning team.

Those who contend that insularity has been the downfall of the major contenders will have to explain why France, with their widely dispersed squad, have floundered so badly.

It could just be that the relative lack of fame and expectation has aided some of those who are excelling at Euro 2004. Rehhagel does not face the sort of challenge flunked by Iñaki Sáez, the Spain coach who seemed incapable of dropping Raul, despite his poor displays.

Portugal certainly have stars, but Luiz Felipe Scolari never hesitates to humble them, whether in dropping Rui Costa or substituting Luis Figo. Dick Advocaat also removed the eminent Edgar Davids after an hour of Holland's quarter-final.

So even if the meek do not inherit the earth, some humble people might be collecting European championship medals come Sunday.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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