Flying the football flag

MAKE a date in your diary - Saturday, July 1, 5pm. That's when, if everything goes to plan for both nations, Sven Goran Eriksson's England will face Luiz Felipe Scolari's Portugal for a place in the World Cup semi-finals.

MAKE a date in your diary - Saturday, July 1, 5pm.

That's when, if everything goes to plan for both nations, Sven Goran Eriksson's England will face Luiz Felipe Scolari's Portugal for a place in the World Cup semi-finals.

If either side finishes second in their first-round group, they could even meet in the final on July 9.

In either case, it would be a clash to savour. With Scolari now apparently lined up to take over from Eriksson after the tournament, the script is surely written.

Added spice comes from the fact that in the last two major championships, Scolari has been the man who plotted England's downfall.

He did it with Brazil at the 2002 World Cup, and with Portugal at Euro 2004.

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What odds could you get now, I wonder, on him making it a hat-trick at Germany 2006?

If it were purely a contest of football talent, you might make England favourites - just - to win against Portugal. In a battle of wits, you'd have to back Scolari to beat Eriksson every time.

That is why the FA's choice is so interesting, and potentially so exciting, even if the process of arriving at it has been long-winded and at times embarrassing.

The starting-point that “it must be an Englishman” was understandable. But Scolari is not just “another foreigner”, he is the most successful coach in the world still working.

If it were true - as has been widely reported - that he speaks almost no English, his appointment would make no real sense. It would hardly matter how good a coach he was if he couldn't communicate directly with his players.

But did you hear him this week declare: “I am a good coach. I know I am a good coach”?

It wasn't just his self-confidence or his accent that sounded like Jose Mourinho. He speaks all the English that matters.

Of the home-grown candidates, I would have liked to see Sam Allardyce given a chance to get his teeth into the job. But I can't really argue against Scolari's credentials.

It will be a greater challenge for him to win things with England than it was to lift the world title with Brazil. Perhaps.

But let's not forget that when he took the reins for his native country they were at their lowest ebb, closer than ever to failing even to qualify for the World Cup finals.

He began by ejecting several of the star names from the squad, then went on to lift the trophy in some style.

In contrast to Eriksson, Scolari is no respecter of egos or reputations (except, perhaps, his own).

I look forward eagerly to the day he gives Sven's favourite prima donna the treatment he handed out to Brazilian superstars Romario and Edmundo, and Portuguese pin-up boys Fernando Couto and Rui Costa.

England without David Beckham will be so refreshing.

IT may have been something to do with St George's Day last Sunday, but I suspect it wasn't. The English flags are out again.

I have seen a few cars these past few days flying the red cross and expect to see many more before the World Cup gets under way.

I find this form of patriotism faintly ridiculous - but not as plum daft as all those serious football folk who keep repeating the national mantra.

You know the one I mean. It comes in two versions, or two parts.

One says: “This is England's best chance of winning the World Cup since 1966.”

The other: “The current squad is the best we've ever had.”

Trouble is, we've heard this almost every four years for the past 40. The first part was true in 1970, the second part might just have been in 1990.

Both parts are complete piffle now.

The fact is, we have three players of genuine World Cup class: John Terry, Frank Lampard and Stephen Gerrard. Make that four if you count Wayne Rooney, which I don't - yet.

Two of those three play in the same position, but should be good enough together to build a side around.

Unfortunately, we have a coach of very limited tactical sense who insists on building his side around a different, inferior player.

On the field and off it, there are weaknesses everywhere you look.

Paul Robinson's a decent goalkeeper, but are you really happy with David James as understudy?

If Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney are all capable of winning you matches against the odds, James is even more capable of throwing one away.

At the back, I'd be comfortable with Jamie Carragher alongside Terry, but I fear Eriksson might opt for Rio Ferdinand, who is another accident waiting to happen.

Up front, Michael Owen is a fine finisher when fit. Which he isn't.

Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and Ledley King aren't fit either, but Eriksson still seems intent on taking them all to Germany.

Frankly, I don't expect Sven's ragbag squad to get as far as a possible clash with Portugal.

I expect them to finish second to Sweden in their group, then lose to an uninspiring Germany in round two. Anything else will be a bonus.

N

Read past columns by Aidan at www.eveningstar.co.uk.

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