International Encounters Could Be The Calm Before The Storm

Last updated : 09 September 2003 By Bernard Azulay

I am probably spoilt by being privileged to watch the likes of Henry and Vieira perform each week. For when the Ireland starting eleven was announced on Saturday afternoon, I was struck by the thought that aside from Damien Duff and John O'Shea, there wasn't one of the remaining nine I'd fancy in my team (OK possibly Shay Given). Whatever your thoughts on Brian Kerr as Ireland manager, it is no mean achievement with a squad sadly wanting in genuine world class players for them to be punching well above their weight., Against Russia, in the absence of Robbie Keane, it seemed that too much was resting on the diminutive shoulders of young Damien and didn't Russia know it!

The prospect of watching encounters involving journeymen like Breen and Carsley might not have me jumping around the living room for joy. Yet at least there remains some intrigue about Ireland's attempts to recover from their disastrous start to their qualification campaign. Wondering whether they can slip under the wire on little more than the terrific team spirit we have come to expect over the years. Whereas my waning interest in Sven's bunch of overpaid wasters ensured that the England game was already twenty minutes in by the time I remembered to turn over. I assume the FA must have wheeled out Sol for the waiting media the day before, because Saturday's papers were full of "England's rock ready to roll" type headlines. The Guardian picked out five of Sol's England performances which stand out for various reasons. Talk about tempting fate!

Although considering the circumstances, perhaps Sol's embarrassing "stoops to failure" slip-up was not so surprising. By half-time England's indifferent efforts on the pitch left me so unenthused about the second half that I decided to take the dog for a walk over Hampstead Heath instead. At least an early evening stroll while listening to the commentary on the radio would mean that it wouldn't be a total waste of time! I was listening in the car on route when Radio 5's microphones picked up the heinous monkey noises directed by some neanderthal Macedonians at Emil Heskey. The commentator Alan Green was duly disgusted as the racist scum responsible were standing right in front of him, along with some comatose Macedonian coppers. It is one thing to read about such shocking incidents but it is much more horrifying when you hear it with your own ears.

In this day and age it is outrageous that some sporadic fighting between supporters sees England threatened with the possibility of having to play behind closed doors, while the game's authorities lack the gravitas to do anything more than scratch the surface of a far more serious problem with their paltry fines. UEFA must start handing down far more draconian punishments if they want to prove that there is a real desire to stamp out such overt racist displays, at least within our football stadia.

Wales were holding their own in the San Siro, according to my radio, by the time Treacle and I finished our walk and reached my favourite cafe for some refreshment. I was tempted to tease the Italian proprietor but I didn't want him doing something nasty to my plate of lasagne. I should have lingered over my latté until full-time, when I might have inveigled a free dinner by informing him of his country's four-nil victory. Still I was keen to get home to collapse on the sofa and savour a recording of the Arsenal....sorry France demolishing Cyprus.

Poor Ashley Cole came in for some stick from some of the moaning Minnies in the media on Sunday, with some questioning his defensive capabilities at International level. However I have some sympathy with Cole because it couldn't have been easy for the black players in Skopje. Especially playing out wide where it must have been impossible to ignore the odious insults. Moreover how can you possibly justify praising young Ashley for the attacking potential he offers down the left flank in one breath and then slaughter him in the other, for getting caught out occasionally as a result. I was just grateful that the feats of young "Roonaldo" saved both Arsenal players from a fate worse then Seaman's and the savage mauling he suffered after his Macedonian mishap.

The first break for Internationals last season did the Arsenal absolutely no favours. We were flying at the time, unbeaten away from home for an eternity (well since the season before last) and playing some of the best football we'd ever witnessed. We came back to see our amazing away record fall to the wondrous last minute strike that introduced Wayne Rooney to the world and were beaten at home by Blackburn the following week.

After their imperious performance in Paris and hopefully another high in Slovenia on Wednesday, with a bit of luck our French contingent will come back having forgotten the fact that we were fairly fortunate to scrape all six points from our previous two matches. Buoyed by that winning feeling and after four wins in four when our form was fairly mediocre, just imagine the possibilities if/when they start producing some of the prodigious football we know them to be capable of?