England may fail to qualify next Euro C'ship

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src='http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/images/thumbnail/ver1/b/beckham_ap.jpg' class='caption'> England is in danger of failing to qualify for next year's European Championship, so get ready for the hard-luck stories.

Updated: November 17, 2007 19:03 IST
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England is in danger of failing to qualify for next year's European Championship, so get ready for the hard-luck stories.

If David Beckham, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney don't join other international soccer stars at Euro 2008, a sorry tale of long-term injuries and referee blunders will no doubt follow.

Yet only one World Cup triumph more than 40 years ago and not even another appearance in a final tell their own story. If it all goes wrong again, they can't even blame a red card or a penalty shootout.

Maybe they will finally admit it was poor tactics, bad player selection and the lack of a top-quality coach.

After failing to beat Macedonia, Croatia, Israel and Russia, the England players need a huge slice of good fortune to make it to next year's tournament in Austria and Switzerland.

England was on course to qualify when it led Russia 1-0 in Moscow a month ago, but then conceded two late goals for a loss.

The result means that the Russians will move ahead of England on Saturday by beating Israel in Tel Aviv.

Then Russia has the easy task of finishing with a match against Andorra, which has lost all 10 group games so far, conceding 39 goals along the way and scoring only two.

Even if England finishes with a victory over Croatia on Wednesday, the mood at Wembley is unlikely to be music to coach Steve McClaren's ears.

"It will be a massive disappointment sitting at home in the summer," said Steven Gerrard, the midfielder whose standout performances for Liverpool earned it Europe's top club trophy, the Champions League, three seasons ago.

"It's going to be difficult. We are going to be heroes or villains. The fans are entitled to their opinion."

English fans have been starved of success for 41 years, since Alf Ramsey led the team to the 1966 World Cup title in a memorable final, which finished 4-2 after extra time against West Germany.

But even that triumph was on home turf and England played all its games at the same stadium.

There were signs that the English might hold onto the title in 1970 until it ran into the Germans again.

Despite the absence of goalkeeper Gordon Banks, laid low with food poisoning, England moved ahead 2-0 but then fell apart. Ramsey made some puzzling substitutions and the Germans won 3-2.

England failed to qualify for the next two World Cups and Ron Greenwood's team was eliminated before the semifinals in '82 without losing a game.

Then came all that bad luck.

At the 1986 World Cup, it was Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" goal - the deliberate handball - that England fans still curse.

They tend to forget about Maradona's brilliant second goal, when he dribbled past four defenders and the goalkeeper in Argentina's 2-1 quarterfinal victory.

Four years later, still under Bobby Robson, England reached the semifinals and again met the Germans. After a standout game ended 1-1, it went to penalties and two English players were the only ones to miss.

The English tabloids applauded the team, however, and one said England has a young team capable of ruling world soccer.

Sadly, under new coach Graham Taylor, it reverted to long, hopeful passes and stereotyped, helter-skelter soccer and, after a feeble first-round elimination at the 1992 European Championship, failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the United States.

Home advantage at Euro '96 led to a revival and another semifinal penalty shootout loss to Germany. The team went to the World Cup in 1998 hoping to make an impact under Glenn Hoddle, but tumbled in the second round against Argentina, again on penalties.

That time the blame went to Beckham, who petulantly kicked an opponent early in the second half and was sent off.

England played a man short for the remainder of the game, including 30 minutes of extra time, before succumbing after a 2-2 draw in a shootout with not enough suitable penalty takers left on the field.

At the World Cup in 2002, it was Ronaldinho's fluky free kick lob over goalkeeper David Seaman that meant a 2-1 quarterfinal loss to Brazil.

It gets forgotten that Ronaldinho was sent off shortly after and Brazil played the last 33 minutes with 10 men.

Four years later, Rooney was ejected, Beckham limped off injured and England lost a penalty shootout to Portugal after a 0-0 draw.

"There's a lot of different reasons (England has not won titles)," Owen said. "In general terms we have qualified for the last dozen years or so for every major tournament and we seem to get to the last eight. It's such a fine line. We could easily have gone on and won one of them.

"I suppose the (2002) World Cup in Japan was the one where you think back. ... It is such a fine line - penalties, sending offs. No matter what you do need that little bit of luck in major tournaments."

Owen, who made his name as an 18-year-old with his wonder goal in that game against Argentina at World Cup '98, argues that England is not the only underachiever.

"It sounds like the old English hard-luck story. But look at other countries, like Spain, with massive reputations, they will be saying the same thing," he said.

"We are a major force in football. We have been an inch away from progressing to the last four and who knows where we would have gone from there?"

Food poisoning, red cards, penalty shootouts, lucky goals. The nation supposed to have invented the game seems to have a raw deal from it.

Or maybe it's something else. Maybe England simply hasn't played well enough.

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