World Cup - the last eight

Quarter-Final preview


Black Sabbath ?

That's what Sunday June 30th could turn into for millions of Scots if England are the last man standing in this World Cup of surprises. That would surely be the biggest shock of the lot if the country which expects to win every four years when it is up against the cream of world football and fails miserably, actually did win in a year when a lot of the big guns have already departed and their own expectations were rather modest to begin with.

Of course it may not happen. But the form-book has flown out of the window so many times already in this competition that we must prepare ourselves for anything. England will have to beat Brazil to get to the last four first. Usually, that would be the end of the story. But this time it may be different. Remember, its only a couple of weeks ago that the Brazilians were being written off as no-hopers, sure to be removed by the might of either France or Argentina who would then fight it out for the right to meet Italy in the Final. They are false favourites. Installed in that position by default.

This website rashly predicted an Italy - Argentina Final with Spain the fancied spoilers. At least the Spanish are still there and with them, our hopes of a decent summer break. Barcelona or Barassie? Over to you Senor Camacho.

But back to England. The topsy-turviness of this tournament has been demonstrated many times but never more aptly than in this quarter-final clash. In one sense nothing has changed. It's still the top scorers against the (jointly with the Germans) meanest defence. But, as guest writer Joe Harle astutely points out elsewhere on this page, Eriksson's England now defend with the old-fashioned style the coach learned during his many years in Serie A. And rather better than the Italians do it themselves it must be said.

But what about the line-ups? Whoever thought we would see the day when Brazil dreaded the English dead-ball specialist? Or that England knew the Brazilian goalkeper was more reliable than their own? That though is the reality of the coming contest. People point to Rivaldo and the mercifully rejuvenated Ronaldo and ask where are the English equivalents. But superstars do not win World Cups on their own. A solid backbone of workmanlike players is also essential. Ask Zidane, Figo, Vieri and Batistuta if you don't believe me.

When England 'won' in 1966 they had only three players who could genuinely wear that much-abused appellation 'world class' with justification - Banks, Moore and Bobby Charlton. The rest were good players who knew their task and stuck to it. Today, Beckham undeniably feasts at the top table and, of his team-mates, only Owen and Ferdinand may one day join him.

This is the gist of it. If George Cohen can win a World Cup winner's medal, so can Danny Mills. Frightening, I know. For the sake of football an attractive attacking team needs to win the World Cup. Youngsters all over the world march to the rhythm of the champions beat. They imitate what they see as the best. If either of these teams were to win the trophy they set the standard for the next four years. 'Only one Rio - in Brazil' or 'One-nil to the In-ger-lund.'

For the English this is the second of three World Cup finals. They feel they've already won it by beating Argentina. Now they have to do it again against Brazil. They've forgotten the slight irritants of a semi-final and an actual final still to come. If they win this one then they reckon its in the bag.

And this, rather than Brazil, may be their undoing. Make no mistake. Any single one of the teams still in this tournament can win it. All have some claim to be able to do so. None can be written off. Brazil? Only team to win all four games. England? Saw off Argentina. Germany? Unbeaten thus far. USA? Turned over Portugal. Spain? Best players in Europe. South Korea? Beat Portugal and Italy. Senegal? Beat the reigning champions. Turkey? Eliminated the co-hosts.

This column fervently hopes that the biggest job facing Tord Grip and Steve McLaren on Friday evening is checking flight timetables for Heathrow. But we cannot say with great confidence that a Brazilian side that struggled to qualify and has needed the referee's whistle to overcome Turkey and Belgium will win. This Brazil are nowhere near as good as their predecessors but England are nowhere near as good as they think they are. Expect a similar game as Brazil V Belgium. A similar scoreline would do just fine.


The quarter-finals throw up all sorts of fascinating permutations. There are only four European teams - the lowest tally at this stage since a similar number in 1970. Yet we could see an all-European semi-final line-up for the first time in twenty years. On the other hand the World Cup semi-finals could go ahead without ANY European participation for the first time ever. Then again, we may see the first Europeans to win outside their home continent. The Final could yet see the first ever meeting between the two countries with the best overall records - Germany and Brazil. Or it could be the USA V Senegal.

Let's lay a few canards to rest before looking at the rest of the quarter-finals. There are those who reckon the whole thing is a fix. Usually these people are Italians, French and Argentinian. Rarely are they English, Brazilian or German. The World Cup has a murky past and the 1934 and 1978 tournaments were not exactly paragons of sporting virtue. But to suggest that FIFA wants to eliminate some of its strongest and most powerful countries who then acquiesce in that decision leads me to the conclusion that the people making these comments are upset that the World Cup has replaced their favourite programme in the TV schedules - the X Files.

The truth is IN here. If Vieri was capable of scoring in front of an open goal and the French any sort of goal they might still be there. As for Argentina, their failure to beat England dashed the hopes and dreams of an entire country. And I don't imagine it played too well back in Buenos Aires either!

Then there are those who suggest the competition's early start has led to too much football for the exhausted Europeans. Apart from the fact that every European league finished early to take account of the World Cup this doesn't explain why Germany, Spain and England - three countries with a heavier schedule than most - are still there, let alone the Turks, the French-based Senegal and that large chunk of the Brazil squad which earns its corn in Europe.

The conspiracy theorists also mutter darkly about the advantage enjoyed by the co-hosts. As if no other host nation has benefited from holding the tournament. Uruguay, Italy, England, West Germany, Argentina and France have all won at home with scarcely a word of criticism. (OK, one of them lifted the trophy when the ball didn't cross the line, but that's another argument).

There appears to be an element of condescension towards the Koreans and the Japanese here which has rather nasty undertones.

Finally, refereeing decisions. Yes, the standard is appalling and FIFA must shoulder the blame. This tournament is far too important for untried officials. At least now things should improve as FIFA have kept on the top officials and sent the rest home, including Graham Poll of England. This leads us to the potentially amusing situation whereby, if England lose on Friday, Scotland will still be represented in the tournament as Hugh Dallas referees the Germany - USA match later that day.

And that match is where we expect the Americans adventure to end. Unwise, perhaps, to make predictions, but the Germans are the one team who don't look likely to stumble against 'weaker' opponents. They've been knocked out unexpectedly, but by other European teams, at this stage in the past two tournaments and arrived in the Far East expecting little. Yet if they beat the USA they'll have had their best tournament since last winning it in 1990.

South Korea too should finally run out of steam against Spain. Yes, there's the big incentive of becoming the first Asian semi-finalists and with that game to be played in Seoul, a good chance of the Final itself. But if we ignore the biased rantings of the British and Irish media and Mick McCarthy's touch of heatstroke which must have prompted his claim that Ireland could have won the cup, the Spanish look good. Like England they are the under-achievers of international football. Like England, they must be thinking they will never have a better chance.

The Turkey-Senegal tie looks too close to call. The Turks have received little media attention, many thinking that the draw has been kind to them. We Scots can say a thing or two about just how easy it is to be in the same group as Brazil and Costa Rica! Remember too, that the Turks succeeded where Italy failed in holding on to a 1-0 lead to knock out one of the co-hosts. They should overcome Senegal though, unashamedly sentimental as we are, the Africans would be our preference to go through.

There we have it then. The last four will be Spain V Germany, Brazil V Turkey and the world will get the Spain - Brazil final that the cause of attractive attacking football needs, with the Spaniards winning their first major trophy.

An easy game this prediction lark. Look in after the weekend to see if this page is splattered with humble pie.



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