The frictions blighting Europe's football dreams
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Their players are global superstars and their clubs dominate the world, but European nations have got off to a shocking start at the World Cup – and anarchy has spread to their camps.
When European teams took all four semi-final slots at the last World Cup in 2006, it looked as though the “Old Continent” had reasserted its control over a game it has traditionally claimed as its own.
Four years on, Europe’s football superpowers have been left looking red-faced after a series of embarrassing results; and to make matters worse, a whiff of mutiny has spread through the camps.
Embarrassment on the pitch
While Central and South American nations have glided through the group stage so far, many in Europe’s numerous contingent have been found wanting.
Spain, the current European champions and the tournament’s hot favourites, slumped to a shock defeat in their first game, albeit against another European nation, the unfancied Swiss.
But the performances of three other European heavyweights – England, France and Italy – have prompted the harshest criticism so far.
France, whose qualification at the expense of Ireland was aided by an infamous handball, are virtually out of the competition after mustering just one point in two games.
England and defending champions Italy have fared marginally better, picking up two points each in as many games. But their poor performances against, respectively, Algeria and New Zealand, have left both teams looking utterly clueless.
Italy could do little more than throw high balls at their attackers, despite the fact that the average Kiwi defender was a full six inch taller. As for the England players, they appeared incapable of even controlling the ball, let alone passing it.
Farce in the dressing room
The Italians, whose ability to show unity on the football pitch contrasts markedly with the country’s politics, may yet rally to save their campaign. The same appears less likely of the French and English.
France’s campaign went from bad to worse on Saturday when star striker Nicolas Anelka was spectacularly fired after allegedly refusing to apologise for a foul-mouthed rant aimed at coach Raymond Domenech.
The players promptly blamed a “traitor” for leaking the lewd remarks, which had been splashed all over the French press drawing fierce condemnation back home, including a rebuke by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The next day, "Les Bleus" abruptly walked away from a public training session and released a statement expressing their dismay at Anelka’s eviction. The team director promptly resigned, describing what had happened as “a scandal for the federation, for the French team and for the whole country”.
England seek to clear the air
Enter Terry. The Chelsea defender, who was stripped of the England captaincy in February amid claims he had had an affair with a former teammate’s girlfriend, addressed the media on Sunday “on behalf of the team” saying England would also be having a clear-the-air meeting and that players would not refrain from criticising coach Fabio Capello.
By midnight, reports suggested Terry’s fledgling revolt had been crushed and the outspoken former captain had been left looking dangerously isolated.
England must now beat Slovenia to avoid the embarrassment of an early exit. Should they fail, their over-hyped campaign will be remembered only for the ridiculous expectations and one of the worst goalkeeping blunders in World Cup history.