Sick men of Europe
We're still a month away from the completion of the qualifiers for next year's European Championship finals and we only know six of the 16 finalists. But it's already clear that the tournament will feature the usual suspects -- with the likely exception of dear old England.
For UEFA, the seedings of the qualifying groups have worked a treat. Apart from England, which was outwitted by
The change in qualifying format -- the top two in each group now qualify automatically, rather than group winners qualifying automatically and runners-up playing off against other -- has helped the big guns, and squeezed out the smaller nations. There will be no Latvia (the surprise qualifier in '04) or Slovenia (the shock inclusion in '00) at Euro '08.
The biggest shock has been provided by England, which needs a minor miracle if it is to avoid failure to qualify for a major tournament for first time since 1994. Its destiny is out of its hands, though the conspiracy theories that have emerged -- suggesting Israel will go easy on Russia in Tel Aviv in a game that England needs the Israelis to win -- are surely wide of the mark.
With the exception of Germany, all the major nations have struggled at some point during the qualifying campaign -- and even Germany capitulated to the Czech Republic in Munich last week, losing 3-0 in its first game since securing qualification.
Italy and France, last year's World Cup finalists, played out a tepid draw in Milan last month, and both have dropped points against key opponents in their group, with the French losing home and away to Scotland and Italy being held at home by Lithuania. Spain, meanwhile, suffered a humiliating defeat to Northern Ireland early on in the campaign.
But unlike England, all of the above countries have taken maximum points from all of their other games.
Aside from England, the qualifying campaigns that will be deemed "failures" have been those of middle-ranking countries such as Belgium, Denmark and Turkey. The sorry state of Belgian soccer has been reflected by a campaign that is likely to see Belgium finish fifth, behind Poland, Portugal, Serbia and Finland.
Denmark, meanwhile, has not recovered from abandonment of its home game against Sweden in June, when the Swedes were awarded all the points when the game in Copenhagen was abandoned after a Danish fan ran onto the pitch and attacked
But for middle-ranking nations such as Denmark, such a wave only comes along once in a generation. The Danes had such a squad in '92, while Bulgaria with
This century, it has been harder to find national sides that conform to Nielsen's theory. Ukraine, led by
From the Euro '08 qualifiers, it has been hard to identify any teams who might rise above their previous performances and enjoy a moment in the sun next summer. Scotland is enjoying a remarkable renaissance under
The Scots could make it to next summer's finals, where the likes of
The Tartan Army, as Scotland's traveling fans are called, are always a welcome addition to any tournament. Their last appearance at a major final -- the '98 World Cup in France -- was memorable for their good-natured behavior, in stark contrast to the small band of England fans that smashed up a waterfront in Marseille.
Sadly for England, its fans are unlikely to get a chance to redeem themselves next summer.