Tension mounts for Euro 2004
By KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun
All over Europe the anxiety is mounting. Soccer fans are fretting about their teams' flaws, both real and imagined.
Germany's fans hooted and jeered their heroes through a 2-0 defeat at the hands of lightly regarded Hungary in the team's final tuneup for Euro 2004, which begins this week in Portugal.
In England they were dissecting a 6-1 romp over Iceland in its final friendly but the angst is definitely building because England's success or failure in this tournament could depend upon how they respond in their very first game, next Sunday.
Neither England nor France gets a chance to ease into the tournament because they face each other right off the bat, a meeting that will have serious implications in Group B and, indeed, for the next round as well.
"England and France both have big players but the only important thing when they meet will be the result," says Laurent Blanc, who captained France's 1998 World Cup champions.
"If you win or draw, okay. But if you lose there is huge pressure because you just have two matches left and must win them both."
Both sides have something to prove in this tournament. The French are coming off a humiliating performance at the 2002 World Cup when, as defending champs, they did not score a goal and were sent home after three games.
England, likewise, did not advance past the first round at Euro 2000, despite a much-heralded advance billing.
"The French are favourites but we are always the team to beat," France striker Robert Pires says. "And we must not fall into the same trap as two years ago.
"Everyone said before the World Cup, 'It will be easy for them because they are in a group with Senegal, Uruguay and Denmark.' You saw what happened. This time, we know that England, Croatia and Switzerland will all be difficult."
Croatia and Switzerland are expected to be the also-rans in Group B but Croatia, especially, is capable of an upset. Beyond that, winning the group becomes important because it might help avoid a second-round confrontation against Portugal, which will have a tidal wave of emotion as the home side in this event.
Meanwhile, the psychological warfare has already started, with French star Patrick Vieira's dismissal of England's style of play.
"England are a really strong team but I don't think they play nice football," Vieira says. "They won't concede many goals, but I don't expect the games to be nice when I watch them. They don't have players like Zinedine Zidane or Robert Pires but they are strong enough with the players they have in the midfield and, with Michael Owen up front, they can be dangerous."
When the French Football Federation failed to step up and offer him a new contract, national coach Jacques Santini accepted an offer to coach Tottenham Horspurs, so this will be his last tournament as coach of France. He would have preferred to stay on but perceived a lack of respect and decided it was time to move on.
"My decision will not be detrimental to the French team," Santini says. "On the contrary, the fact that I know I am leaving will only add to my determination to take this team as far as possible at the Euro."
There has been plenty of concern over an ankle infection to David Beckham, one of the anchors of the English side but he says he's going to be ready.
"It's fine," he says. "People have been talking about my injury but there isn't one. There's been a niggle for a few weeks but it isn't going to be a problem."
Just how important is this tournament to England? Well, as calculated by the Evening Standard newspaper, about $125 million will be spent by England fans bribing their wives and girlfriends to let them watch Euro 2004 matches.
According to the newspaper, "nearly a third of men have had to promise not to get too drunk and more than a quarter have agreed to make sure their friends leave the house by a certain time."
The bribes take the form of romantic dinners, both at home and in restaurants. Another expensive option, according to the poll, involves the dispensing of mad money to go shopping.
If it all leads to a long-awaited major championship, whatever the price for England fans will be money well spent.