Football Euro 2004: Eriksson's Expectation Game ; England V France History and the Favourites Are against Him, but the Dreams Linger
Tongue, Steve, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
As the St George's flag-sellers rub their hands with glee and the talk is of glory, glory, the job of the objective critic a week before England play a major tournament is, as usual, to diffuse hyperbole. That is most easily done not just with reference to Tuesday night's 30-minute performance against Japan, but with a history lesson, the gist of which is: England's record at European Championships is wretched.
In six tournaments under the modern system, qualifying five times, they have won a mere four matches out of 17 (penalty shoot- outs excluded), of which half were achieved in the home tournament of 1996 and none came in an opening match. After all the build-up and bold predictions, the first game has always ended in either a deflating draw (Belgium 1980, Denmark '92, Switzerland '96) or dispiriting defeat (Ireland 1988, Portugal 2000).
With fewer minnows to recover points against than in a typical group at the World Cup finals, a poor start in this competition is invariably the precursor of elimination before the knockout stage, as suffered in all four of those tournaments played abroad. Only in 1996 did the football fever sweeping the land take on epidemic proportions, Terry Venables' team responding to the opening day's anti-climax by lifting their game against Scotland and then, gloriously, Holland. Even then, a semi-final defeat meant that it was the Germans who finished up standing on a balcony waving the trophy and singing, "Football's coming home".
So to be facing the holders and favourites first this time should, in theory, douse some of the traditional great expectations. In practice, it appears that anticipation may instead be all the more heady, a feeling that will inevitably be transmitted to a team already quite tense enough. Sven Goran Eriksson, not one of nature's tub-thumpers, is playing it all sensibly. Asked to name the teams most likely to win the tournament, he reels off a list of familiar suspects ("France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal being hosts") before gently adding the name of his own team, usually with the rider that everyone must stay fit, unlike the 2002 World Cup. England, he suggests, "could" win, the use of the conditional tense showing footballing sensibility as much as growing confidence in a foreign language.
There are times for beating the drum and rousing the troops, such as immediately after conceding an equalising goal in a World Cup quarter- final. Eriksson may have to rely on a fervently patriotic Sammy Lee or Ray Clemence at that stage, candidly admitting: "I won't be a Winston Churchill in the dressing room, that wouldn't be me." For now, playing things down rather than hyping them up, he has already suggested that a draw against the French would be "acceptable", while making the illogical prediction: "I don't see a draw because there are too many good players out there."
Eriksson was not afraid to show his hand in last week's two friendly matches, declaring the personnel and tactical formation used against Japan to be his first choice before hedging his bets against Iceland. He believes it to be almost impossible to keep secrets in modern football ("If you're Thierry Henry, what secrets can you keep from [Arsenal team- mate] Sol Campbell? The most important thing is that your own players know what they are doing. …