SPORTS

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April 6, 2004

Giving France les blues

The draw for Euro 2004 is complete and the friendlies are over. Barring major injuries, most countries' squads have been finalized, leaving us, the football fans, licking our lips at the prospect of a championship that will hopefully be as scintillating as Euro 2000. The French are the favorites-that much is obvious-but that only England can stop them is not. Or is it?

Let's quickly recap why it is so easy to project French supremacy. They have the best overall squad with no notable weaknesses, and in Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry, they have the best star players. They are the best team on paper, exemplified by their perfect winning percentage during qualification, and, crucially, they are the most hungry due to their calamitous end in the last World Cup. Add the fact that they are defending champions, and you are left wondering why the bookmakers don't pay out now.

So what does it take to beat them? Citing team quality is simply out of the question; there is little doubt that France has the best defense, midfield, and forward-line in the tournament, along with better reserves. Only the goalkeeper is marginally questionable, but Fabien Barthez's performances while playing for France are as good as those of any international counterpart. On paper France really does make other teams look second-rate, and their hunger will ensure that it is reflected on the pitch, too. Their qualifying campaign should be enough to put aside any criticisms of complacency.

Basically, three ingredients are needed to avoid subjecting humanity to another four years of "Ah, but we won ze Euro Cup!" Firstly, and most obviously, a huge slice of luck would help, such as the "luck" that Bangladesh has called upon when playing Pakistan in a "competitive" cricket match. Secondly, whoever wants to beat the French will need resilience.

They cannot hope to outplay them for any large amount of time, so a sound defense and a tirelessly diligent midfield are musts. That factor immediately rules out the Iberian Peninsula; home advantage cannot make up for Portugal's powder-puff consistency, and Spain would do itself a favor by staying at home. The usual suspects remain: England, Germany, Holland and Italy, as well as perennial dark horse Czech Republic.

However a strong core falls far short, as the third ingredient in the construction of France's nemesis is the presence of world-class, match-winning players, and that is why we can rule out all but England. Take Holland, a team littered with world-class talent but, sadly, none of it match-winning¬óRuud Van-Nistelrooij and Clarence Seedorf may be superb footballers, but one can scarcely remember either playing in a game where their team ended up winning due to their brilliance. Germany can barely eke one match-winner out in Michael Ballack, and that's if we are being generous. Meanwhile Italy and Czech Republic cannot look beyond Francesco Totti or Pavel Nedved for their quota. England has three playmakers: skipper David Beckham, striker Michael Owen, and wonder kid Wayne Rooney.

Rooney and Owen better than Seedorf and Van Nistelrooij? Am I insane? Possibly, but that is not my claim. Over the course of a season, there is no doubt which pair one would prefer lining up for their team, as it is consistent excellence that will yield the victories every team craves. But I have lost track of the number of times Owen has pulled a rabbit out of a hat for England, and playing for Everton means that "Roonaldo" has made them his trademark. Holland et al would need a truly awful performance from France to beat them.

England would not need France to slide as they have the players to win any game, no matter how well the opposition is playing. For that reason, the British have the only team with a reasonable chance of giving France les Blues.