England, France look to start new chapters

French soccer player Karim Benzema listens to questions during a news conference in Donetsk June 9,...

French soccer player Karim Benzema listens to questions during a news conference in Donetsk June 9, 2012. (Charles Platiau/REUTERS)

Mike Zeisberger, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:19 PM ET

KHARKIV, UKRAINE - The Engish have come to the Ukraine seeking to turn the page on the so-called Golden Generation, which some now refer to as the Olden Generation.

The French have come to the Ukraine seeking to turn the page on one of the worst chapters in team history, one in which a band of aloof players disgraced their country by practically committing a mutiny in South Africa two years ago.

On Monday, these two nations with proud soccer heritages will clash at the magnificent Donbass Arena in the industrial Ukrainian city of Donetsk, an intriguing matchup between two squads that hardly resemble the rosters that so deeply disappointed their respective legions of fans at World Cup 2010.

For the English, the Golden Generation consisted of names like David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, John Terry, brothers Gary and Phil Neville and Paul Scholes. Early in the reign of then-manager Sven-Göran Eriksson, executives with the Engish FA joined certain media members in creating the label for this particular group, with Beckham, Owen and Gerrard considered to be the nucleus.

Alas, dreams of potential titles for the Golden Generation never materialized, much to the chagrin of soccer-crazed England. Instead, there was an assembly line of heartbreak, including the failure to qualify for Euro 2008 followed by a second-round 4-1 beatdown at the hands of rival Germany in South Africa.

Now, the greybeards have been replaced by a gaggle of wide-eyed kids who wish to create their own legacy. If it will happen at Euro 2012 might be a stretch, but even the rabid, ever-optimistic supporters of the Three Lions understand this youth movement is the proper way to proceed.

Indeed, the English enter Euro 2012 as the fourth-youngest of the 16 teams in the tournament. Compare that to South Africa, where they were the oldest of the 32 squads.

Sure, some of the old guard is still around and kicking. Gerrard will control the centre of the field while Terry will attempt to avoid being exploited at the back because of his average foot speed. At the same time, an injured Lampard is out for the tournament, a blow to an English squad that will also be missing Wayne Rooney for its first two tournament games because of suspension.

"The team and squad were built up as the Golden Generation and the expectation and pressure grew over the years," Gerrard said. "We were expected to deliver in a major tournament and, by deliver, that means going to a final or winning a trophy.

"We were put down as favorites in previous tournaments and, maybe, because we haven't done that, the expectations this time will be less. But that could suit us and turn into a positive. By the same token there will be a certain amount of pressure and expectation because we are England."

The French, meanwhile, are also trying to go into Euro 2012 with a clean slate. So disappointed was incoming manager Laurent Blanc in France's inability to escape the group stage at the 2010 World Cup, he did not include any of the 23 players on that pompous, underachieving roster in his lineup during France's first post-rtournament game.

Bitter memories of French players refusing to leave the team bus to practice because of a beef with management in South Africa have been replaced by optimism at the team's 21-game unbeaten streak under Blanc, who will look to young stars like striker Karim Benzema to lead the way.

"We've had difficult times, and we're not going to hide from that," Blanc said Sunday night. "But we qualified and we deserve to be here. Some teams are better than France, but if we can get out of the group stage anything can happen."

Blanc and English manager Roy Hodgson will be making their debuts in a major tournament Monday. Just another spicy sidebar to an already tasty matchup.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca

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