Night of chivalry and malevolence

  • Other Sport
  • Sunday, 15 Jun 2003

By Rob Hughes

Italy were simply clinical. England can be considered lucky while it was pain for Spain on a night of European football that saw intense displays of skilful football, sportmanship and systematic intimidation in Istanbul. And embarrassment too, as former playmaker and current coach of Serbia and Montenegro, Dejan Savicevic, quit after his team lost. 

MEMORABLE OUTING: England's Michael Owen, captain for the night, capped his 50the cap with a double to help his team beat Slovakia 2-1 in a Euro 2004 Group 7 qualifier on Wednesday.

A SINGLE night of intense European Championship soccer can reflect more change than any chameleon. 

Wednesday brought a handshake, and a look of sheer respect from Raul Gonzalez to Maik Taylor after Northern Ireland's goalkeeper denied the prince of Spanish goals again, and again, and again in Belfast. The contest ended 0-0, and cost Spain the leadership of its qualifying group. 

In contrast, there was systematic intimidation, yet again, in Istanbul where police with riot shields had to ring Macedonian players attempting to take corner kicks. Bottles rained down on them, one struck a player, and though Turkey rallied from twice being a goal behind to win a stirring encounter 3-2, the ramifications will surely be extreme for the Turks, and the sport. 

UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, must study the video and decide how to secure the safety of players. That decision could well be to impose a severe sanction and order that the decisive game in Group 7, between Turkey and England in October, take place without spectators. 

England's soccer authority, the Football Association, is already one hooligan-related incident away from being barred from the tournament Finals that begin in Portugal on June 12, 2004, a year and a day after Wednesday's games. The FA has responded by declining to take any supporters, officially, to Istanbul for the decider. 

But the Turkish soccer authorities seem unable to control their fans and unable to accept that it is their responsibility if overexcited, nationalist hoodlums persistently threaten people who come to their country to play or to watch what is supposed to be a game. 

UEFA had already made Slovakia play a match in this group behind closed doors for verbal abuse of black English players. It gave England a warning and a fine for violent pitch encroachment. It cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that one of the barrage of missiles – a full water bottle – struck and felled Macedonia's Sasko Lazarevski as he celebrated a goal by his team. 

The great shame is that Turkey has never known such a period in its soccer. Its team is gifted, spirited, and close to the peak of the world game. Its administrators contribute greatly to UEFA's organisation. Yet the portents are bad for Oct 11, when England plays in Istanbul. Life is at stake, and UEFA has the duty to take precautions. 

The problem is that to shut out spectators, or to remove the match to a neutral venue, robs the Turkish team of home advantage. England has the points from its home victory over the Turks in a match scarred by mass spectator threat and by bad feeling stemming from the fatal stabbing of two Leeds fans in Istanbul two years ago. This is a chameleon sport indeed. The sportsmanship of Raul in Belfast, the dreadful malevolence in Istanbul and, in between, the beauty of two goals, from Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero, in Helsinki that lift Italy back into qualifying contention. 

Those goals, each struck with swift and deadly precision by mercurial masters of the game, show what Italy can achieve when it strips away the neurosis of negativity. To beat the Finns, 2-0, on their home soil is not easy, to accomplish it with such classic strokes, and to overcome the nonsense that Italy cannot accommodate the creativity of Totti and Del Piero in the same lineup, is worth every raised glass of Chianti it will have inspired. 

In Athens, too, the sheer joy of a goal became intoxicating. It came against the Ukraine when, with time running out, a substitute, Angelos Charisteas, ran free to net the Greeks' second victory in four days. Each was built on a solitary goal and a strong defence – evidence that under German management Greece can bring order to its game. 

The Germans, meanwhile, appeared to push the waiting game to the limit before Miroslav Klose and Fredi Bobic scored in the last 90 seconds to give it a 2-0 victory on the home soil of the mighty Faroe Islands. It was justice, said Rudi Voller, the German trainer, because the islanders had done nothing but defend for the entire 90 minutes. 

During England's fluctuating match in Middlesbrough against Slovakia there was little that could be described as defending. The English had devised a diamond formation in midfield – one player holding back to protect the defence, one at the tip supporting attack, and two on the flanks because England has no natural wingers. 

But diamonds are not necessarily forever. The formation was abandoned before half time, with England a goal down after its sleepy defence and goalie David James had allowed a curled free-kick from Vladimir Janocko to float over all of them and into the net. 

Slovakia squandered three more chances before the hurried English reformation and wilting Slovak running power changed matters. With Steven Gerrard restored to central midfield, England found sorely needed leadership and competitive strength. And Michael Owen, captain for the night of his 50th England appearance, scored the goals that won this match in the same manner that the English also came from behind to win 2-1 in Bratislava last year. Owen's first goal was a penalty that he won artfully – the Slovaks say deceitfully – when he fell in front of goal. 

His second was a product of Gerrard's ability to guide the ball into the opponent's goalmouth, and the instinct that Owen possesses to move into that space at the right moment.  

He used his head, in two ways, to finish off the match and round his career statistics to 22 goals in 50 games at the age of 23. Owen missed several chances in the first half and should have scored at least once more after his two goals, which would have won the match ball for a hat-trick.  

“Even when I miss chances,” he said. “I get back in there. Fortunately I have that thing inside me, which is never to hide.” 

It is the inner courage of the goalscorer. Far away, in Baku , another man who knows what it is like to be his national soccer hero was quitting. Dejan Savicevic, once the playmaker and until Wednesday the coach of Serbia and Montenegro, was embarrassed by his team's 2-1 loss in Azerbaijan. 

Without waiting for the consequences, he told Serbia's national radio: “Its all over, I resign.” 

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