LONDON: Youth takes centre stage this week as the football spotlight shifts from European domestic title races to the international scene.
Twenty-seven friendlies are scheduled today, including some eye-catching match-ups – Holland vs Argentina, China vs Brazil, Spain vs Germany, Italy vs Portugal and England vs Australia.
In other top matches, it’s France vs Czech Republic, Jamaica vs United States and Scotland vs Ireland.
It's the first time national teams have gotten together since November. The games are part of preparations for the next round of qualifiers for the 2004 European Championship on March 29.
One Euro qualifier is scheduled today, with Serbia-Montenegro, formerly known as Yugoslavia, hosting Azerbaijan in a Group 9 match.
Spain and Germany meet in Palma de Mallorca, with both teams looking for a spark from their goal-shy forwards.
Spain, who reached the World Cup quarter-finals last year, have managed only one goal in their last two friendly matches. World Cup runners-up Germany wasted a host of chances in their 3-1 defeat to Holland in November.
Spanish coach Inaki Saez hopes his team can overcome what he calls a lack of a “pure goalscorer”.
“We have people who regularly score goals, but we have not got a player whose only role is to knock them in,” Saez said.
Germany coach Rudi Voeller has called up 21-year-old 1860 Munich forward Benjamin Lauth – nicknamed “Benny Bomber” in the German tabloids – in a bid to galvanise his attack.
Lauth joins five players under the age of 23 in an under-strength German squad, including Bochum midfielder Paul Freier and Hertha Berlin defender Arne Friedrich.
“There are many young players which will mean that we will be short of the experience and calmness that veteran players bring,” Voeller said.
England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson has a novel solution for his regular club-vs-country conflict – a different team for each half. The first half will feature regular starters, the second a youthful, experimental team of players aged under 26.
That means Everton’s teenager striker Wayne Rooney is set to become the youngest ever England international.
When Rooney plays at London’s Upton Park, aged 17 years and 111 days, he will break the record set by James Prinsep, who was 141 days older when he played for England against Scotland in 1879.
In what Eriksson called a “vision of the future”, he handed surprise call-ups to Arsenal’s Francis Jeffers and Matthew Upson as well as Charlton duo Scott Parker and Paul Konchesky.
“After Wednesday’s game some of the players have FA Cup matches, European matches and important games in the Premiership,” Eriksson said. “These are matches their clubs must win at any cost. In the middle of all this, England are playing a friendly, so I feel I should give something back.”
Australia last played England in Sydney 1991, losing 1-0. Today will be the Socceroos’ first match ever in England.
China’s new coach, Arie Haan, has a difficult first match in Guangzhou – 12 of the players on Brazil’s 22-man squad were on last year’s World Cup winning team, including Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Cafu.
The match is also the first in charge for Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira.
Italy host Portugal in Genoa with Christian Vieri, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti out with injuries.
Giovanni Trapattoni has included Argentine-born midfielder Mauro German Camoranesi, who plays for Juventus and holds dual citizenship. Under international rules, Camoranesi can play for Italy because he has never played for the Argentine team.
Other first-time Azzurri members include diminutive forward Fabrizio Miccoli and Lazio striker Bernardo Corradi.
“I must look forward. The friendly with Portugal is intended to test new players for the key European qualifying match against Finland,” Trapattoni said.
New Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who helped Brazil to the World Cup title, left out World Cup goalkeeper Vitor Baia of Porto, Benfica striker Nuno Gomes and Sporting Lisbon midfielder Joao Pinto.
He called up only nine of Portugal’s 23-man World Cup squad, selecting four rookies and emerging players who had fallen from grace such as Fulham’s Luis Boa Morte, Bordeaux defender Marco Caneira and Deportivo Coruna defender Jorge Andrade.
For the Holland-Argentina game in Amsterdam, Real Sociedad goalkeeper Sander Westerveld was recalled to the Dutch squad in place of the injured Edwin van der Sar. Dutch coach Dick Advocaat’s high-powered squad also include Manchester United’s Ruud van Nistelrooy, Arsenal’s Giovanni van Bronkhorst, Lazio’s Jaap Stam, Juve’s Edgar Davis and PSV’s Mark van Bommel.
“The game against Holland is definitely not a practice match for us,” Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa said. “They are too tough of an opponent for that, and what’s more, we will play to win.” – AP