PARIS: France and Italy are gearing up for a grudge re-match today while the Czech Republic and Slovakia will be reunited on a football pitch 13 years after their “velvet divorce” as the next round of Euro 2008 qualifiers kick-off around Europe.
The France-Italy match has already been billed as a revenge mission for the French after their World Cup final defeat on penalties in July.
But if that, and former captain Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt on Italy defender Marco Materazzi, were not enough to stoke the fires of discontent before kick-off, the neighbours and perennial rivals have also resorted to trading insults in the build-up.
Italian bulldog Gennaro Gattuso has described the French as bad losers ahead of the crunch group B battle.
“When we lost the Euro 2000 10 seconds from the end we didn’t go around moaning about it afterwards,” said Gattuso.
“It’s true that we usually find it a bit hard to swallow defeats, but they (France) are a lot worse.
“At least on that score, Italy come runners-up to France,” added Gattuso.
At least the match referee at the Stade de France in Paris, Herbert Handel is ready for an explosive encounter, although he says he is ready.
“Of course I expect an explosive encounter (...) but above all I am looking forward to refereeing a classic European football match between two great teams who know how to play fairly.”
France head into the match as favourites after recording an impressive 3-0 win at Georgia on Saturday while Italy were embarrassingly held to a 1-1 draw at home by minnows Lithuania.
And with the Italian League yet to begin, many of the Italian players are lacking in match practice this season.
Italy coach Roberto Donadoni, however, will not be panicked into any rash decisions.
“I’m am not going to make any changes for the match against France,” said Donadoni. “I’m proud of the players and the whole squad.”
Thirteen years after Czechoslovakia’s so-called “Velvet Divorce”, in which the country split into two, Slovakia play host to the Czech Republic in Group D. The Czechs beat Slovakia 4-1 in a 2002 friendly.
The Slovaks, who were 6-1 winners over Cyprus on Saturday, will have to keep a closer watch on Czech newcomer David Lafata than Wales did.
The striker scored within seconds of making his debut as a substitute to put his team ahead before going on to score an 89th-minute winner after the Welsh had equalised.
Meanwhile, England seem more worried by potential racist chanting than their opponents in their next outing against Macedonia in Skopje.
The Macedonian FA were fined by UEFA after England’s black players were verbally abused during a Euro 2004 qualifier in September 2003.
“It’s a hostile place to go,” said captain John Terry. “It was a little bit unpleasant there last time, but we’ll shut that out,”
Group E opponents Croatia have been thrown into disarray ahead of their opening clash against Russia.
Strikers Bosko Balaban, Ivica Olic and midfielder Darijo Srna have been punished by coach Slaven Bilic after sneaking out of the team hotel to go to a Zagreb nightclub.
Bilic said: “I can’t understand why three players leave the team hotel without saying a word. It’s unacceptable and that is why I will not be using them.”
The president of the Croatian football federation, Vlatko Markovic said: “What has happened is terrible and I’m disappointed. They are three very good players but they must be punished because they have tarnished the reputation of the team.”
The players are remorseful, though, and Balaban said: “I am guilty. I made an enormous error and I have to accept the consequences.”
German fans will be looking for a goal fest as their team follow up Saturday’s 1-0 win over the Republic of Ireland with a trip to San Marino in Group D.
However, striker Miroslav Klose has warned his country’s supporters not to get carried away.
“We want to win this game and that is all that counts. I am not thinking of scoring three or four goals myself,” Klose said. “Victory by a few clear goals would be ideal but it all depends on how early the breakthrough comes.” - Agencies