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Friday, 21 July 2006

3419: Whatever Happened To: Cherno S

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by : Paul Grech

If the win over Paraguay seems like the only good news of the day, consider the fact that Group B rivals Sweden could only muster a goalless draw with supposed whipping boys Trinidad and Tobago in Dortmund.

West Ham United goalkeeper Shaka Hislop is drafted in as a late replacement for the injured Kelvin Jack, and proceeds to turn in an inspired performance as the Soca Warriors earn their first ever World Cup point despite having Avery John sent off just after half-time;

“I recognise the better chances went to Sweden. If you see their front line they have guys who play for Juventus, Anderlecht and Arsenal. We have guys who play for the smaller clubs in England.” points out Trinidad and Tobago coach Leo Beenhakker, trying to offer a little perspective;

“They have a little bit more talent than we have but we never stopped fighting and stayed alive until the end.” offers the cock-a-hoop, almost gloating Beenhakker.

Opposite number Lars Lagerback rues his side’s missed opportunities;

“Their keeper made some great saves and we just couldn't score.” he bleats;

“We were the much better side but they showed great skill and defended solidly.”

In Hamburg Argentina serve notice of their intentions, producing the best football seen in the competition so far in the first half of their 2-1 win over Ivory Coast.

With Juan Roman Riquelme dictating play the Argentines race into a two-goal first half lead, with Chelsea striker Hernan Crespo on target aswell as former Barcelona prodigy Javier Saviola. However, England-it is sets in during the second half, with an increasingly restrained Argentina pegged back by Didier Drogba’s goal for the Elephants. Despite one or two half-scares, the South Americans hold on to take a strong position in Group C;

“They gave us a hard time but we always knew this is the toughest group.” suggests Argentina coach Jose Pekerman;

“We have a great team spirit which will be key for us but we are realistic and must take things a game at a time.”

Ivory Coast coach Henri Michel isn’t losing hope, despite the loss;

“The players are disappointed but we should not focus on the negative.” he insists;

“We should try to look at this match and analyse things.”

Does the C in Group C stand for Chelsea?

It might well do, as following the goalscoring exploits of Hernan Crespo and Didier Drogba in Saturday’s Argentina v Ivory Coast clash (June 10) Dutch winger Arjen Robben gets in on the act against Serbia-Montenegro in Leipzig a day later.

Robben produces a fine all-round performance, capped by his 18th minute goal for which he races clear of a static Serbia-Montenegro defence before finishing expertly.

Holland coach Marco van Basten is quick to praise the Chelsea winger’s role in the win;

“He was very dangerous throughout the whole game. He was very difficult to defend and I was lucky he was on our side.”

Serbia-Montenegro have chances of their own, but misfiring strikers Savo Milosevic, Mateja Kezman and the towering Nicola Zigic cannot capitalise. That said, Kezman is among those in the squad who feel the negative tactics of coach Ilija Petkovic are to blame;

“Either we start attacking, or we're out of the World Cup.” warns the former Chelsea man;

“If we had attacked them from the start, we could have scored. We also might have lost by several goals but at least it wouldn't have been in such a cowardly fashion.” chips in Portsmouth loanee and first half substitute Ognjen Koroman, possibly ensuring a permanent seat on the pine.

Pah, they should try playing for Sven Goran Eriksson.

Hoping to prove that they can cut the World Cup mustard outside their own country are Mexico, and they get their campaign under way with a 3-1 Group D win over Iran in Nuremburg. Omar Bravo becomes the third player to bag himself a brace so far at World Cup 2006, emulating the feats of Miroslav Klose and Paulo Wanchope in the opening game.

Bravo puts the Mexicans in front with a tap-in from a well worked free-kick on 28 minutes, and after Yahya Golmohammadi’s equaliser before half-time Bravo is put through by Brazilian-born Zinha to net the second on 76. Zinha helps himself to the third minutes later with a powerful header.

Mexico coach Ricardo La Volpe puts his side‘s improved second half performance down to the support of their fans;

“The crowd motivated us, gave us more incentive.” he reasons;

“I believe in the second half they got behind us more and for that reason we won.” he adds.

Begs the question where were they in the first half then?

Iran boss Branko Ivankovic doesn’t want to talk about the second half;

“We played well in the first half and could have scored more than once.” he suggests.

Euro 2004 finalists Portugal almost score within 11 seconds of their Group D match-up with former colony Angola. Paris St.Germain striker Pauletta races clear of an almost stationary defence but drags his shot wide. The warning is not heeded, as only four minutes later Pauletta cashes in on yet more standing around in the Angolan back four, with the ageing Luis Figo made to look speedy on his way to laying it on the proverbial plate for Pauletta.

From then on Portugal disappoint, turning in and England-esque display with manager Luiz Felipe Scolari’s tactics suggesting he may have taken his recent link with the FA a step too far. Unperturbed, Scolari thinks his side will be ok;

“We got the three points. We'll build on that.” he says, before admitting;

“At one stage they were better than us in midfield but if you look at the best chances they were all ours.”

Angolan coach Luis Oliveira Goncalves is happy with his side’s effort;

“Overall, Portugal deserved the win, but my team played to their best level and we want to improve in each game. We made life difficult for the Portuguese.”

When you have waited your entire history to score a goal at a World Cup finals tournament, what’s another 84 minutes?

That’s how long it takes Australia - not seen at a World Cup since the last German festival in 1974 - to register on the scoreboard against Group F rivals Japan on June 12. By then the Socceroos are already a goal down, Mark Schwarzer having misjudged Shunsuke Nakamara’s hopeful cross after 26 minutes.

Looking stale and devoid of ideas, Guus Hiddink’s Aussies are given the boost they need with the introduction of Everton midfielder Tim Cahill. Not only does the former Millwall man equalise six minutes from time, but he also escapes a very strong penalty appeal for a foul on Yuichi Komano to rip in a scorching second on 89 minutes. It is left to former Coventry City striker John Aloisi to put the cap on the win with a neat solo goal in injury time;

“This team is nice to work with because they never give up.” says Hiddink, with a perhaps slightly carried away Cahill adding;

“We look to moments like these from when we were kids dreaming of this situation.”

Japan are coached by Brazilian legend Zico, who is far from happy with his players’ showing;

“We did not do anything after taking the lead.” he claims;

“The way Australia turned the game on its head is difficult to stomach.” he adds queasily.

Few performances at World Cup 2006 so far have usurped that achieved by the Czech Republic in beating USA 3-0 in Group E in Gelsenkirchen. Jan Koller heads Karel Bruckner’s side in front after only five minutes, before an attractive double from new Arsenal recruit Tomas Rosicky (36 and 76).

The win is marred only by an injury to Koller, who pulls up with a hamstring problem in the first half and is now doubtful for the remainder of the tournament;

“The injury is really, really serious and it makes me very sad.” says Bruckner, while Koller offers a more optimistic slant;

“I probably won't play in the first round, but if we get through to the last 16, I'll be available again.” he says.

That first round passage is made more likely by the lacklustre USA in this one, with coach Bruce Arena struggling to hide his anger. Reading from the Martin Jol Manual Of Naming And Shaming he blasts;

“Landon (Donovan) showed no aggression. I am very disappointed by the performance of our players.”

In Hanover the evening game in Group E sees fancied but scandal-hit Italy take on Ghana. In a fast, open first half the Africans hold their own, but are eventually undone by an Andrea Pirlo scorcher from the edge of the box on 40 minutes.

The second stanza is dominated by the Azzuri, but it is not until seven minutes from time that Vincenzo Iaquinta - earlier seen crying on the turf as if his World Cup had come to an abrupt end following a rash foul by Sammy Kuffour - capitalises on a mistake by the former Bayern Munich turf-thumper to tap in for a 2-0 win;

“From a psychological point of view the first match is always difficult to win and I thought the lads did really well to close it out.” is coach Macello Lippi’s typically Italian verdict.

For his part, Ghana coach Ratomir Dujkovic keeps us guessing with;

“Maybe we had some chances but we missed. With one group of players I'm satisfied, with another I am not.”

Ending on a positive note, he adds;

“Of course the players are a little bit disappointed but they need to keep their chins up and focus on the next game. I still believe that we can progress to the next stage.”

There’s not quite the style and swagger that many people expect, but Brazil still make a winning start to their World Cup campaign against Croatia in Berlin on June 13.

The Group F encounter is settled by AC Milan midfielder Kaka’s long-range curler just before half-time, as the world champions survive a few second half scares to take all three points. Aside from the result the major talking point is the form (or lack thereof) of Real Madrid striker Ronaldo, about whom the words ‘slow’, ‘overweight’ and ‘cumbersome’ are generous.

Coach Carlos Alberto Perreira skirts around the issue like Ronaldinho avoiding the desperate lunge of another opponent, focusing instead on the team effort;

“In addition to the fact that the team hasn't played a lot together, we faced an adversary that was good and marking very well, with energy.” he explains;

“I think the game was balanced, we had more shots on goal but we had a certain difficulty imposing our own rhythm.” he adds.

Sounds like a compliment to the Croatians, but that will be of little consolation to coach Zlatko Krancjar. Yet he remains positive about his side’s tournament prospects;

“This defeat won't stop us from going further.” he promises.

Having bowed out first round ignominy in 2002 France make an auspicious start to Group G, drawing 0-0 with Switzerland in Stuttgart. The Swiss have arguably the better chances of one of the tournament’s duller games to date, leaving France coach Raymond Domenech surprisingly satisfied;

“This was a high-level match from both teams. We knew it would not be easy, but we managed to take two points off a direct rival.” he reasons.

Swiss boss Koebi Kuhn elaborates on a theme;

“France were able to dictate the game and we made mistakes, so we have to be happy with sharing the points.”

Smugness all round then, which is perhaps inspired by events in Frankfurt in the day’s opening game. Semi-finalists four years ago on home soil, South Korea finally overcome Togo 2-1, but not without a fair helping of difficulty.

Distracted by furore surrounding the departure and subsequent return of coach Otto Pfister Togo might well just have been glad to finally get on to a football field. They would have been feeling even happier after taking a first half lead through Mohamed Kader. The game turns on the second yellow card shown to Togo defender Jean-Paul Abalo on 53 minutes, Lee Chun-Soo sweeping the resultant free-kick in for the equaliser.

With the South Koreans enjoying almost all the possession, it is left to a hero of 2002 to grab the winner in the shape of Ahn Jung-Hwan, who unleashes a fine drive on 72;

“To be fair, the players were very calm at halftime even though they were behind.” claims South Korea’s latest Dutch coach Dick Advocaat.

Meanwhile Pfister is in no doubt as to where this one was won and lost;

“When you get a red card, then it becomes hard. Overall we played a good match in a 10 v 11 situation.”

All 32 participating teams in Germany 2006 have seen action by June 14, with the hosts moving closest to the second phase on day six.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s side have to wait until the first minute of injury time at the end of their Group A game against Poland in Dortmund, but Oliver Neuville’s goal pushes them to the brink of qualification for the last 16. Earlier, Miroslav Klose and Lucas Podolsky miss simple opportunities to ease home nerves, but Germany will now have their progression confirmed if Costa Rica fail to beat Ecuador tomorrow afternoon (June 15).

All of which is enough to get Jurgen pretty excited;

“When everything comes together like this it's like a big burst, one feels the emotion of the players.” he gushes.

Slightly different emotions in the Polish ranks, with the defeat pushing them ever closer to the exit. Only a Costa Rican win over Ecuador can now keep the Poles’ hopes alive;

“The goal right at the very end has ruined our chances and I feel awful.” admits Poland coach Pawel Janas, who sees his side reduced to ten men by Radoslaw Soboleswki‘s second yellow card on 75 minutes;

“Basically this match most probably ends our World Cup adventure.” he adds.

Spain get Group H under way with some style in Leipzig, ramming four goals into the Ukraine net without reply. Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso gets his shoulder to a corner kick for the first, before Valencia striker David Villa notches a brace. The first comes courtesy of a deflected free-kick, and the second from the penalty spot after Vladislav Vashchuk is harshly dismissed for pulling down Fernando Torres just after half-time.

It’s Fantasy Football for the fourth, with defender Carlos Puyol performing Zinedine Zidane impersonations before heading the ball into the path of Torres who rifles home from the edge of the box nine minutes from time;

“If we show what we can do I know we can be among the top teams at this tournament.” offers Spain coach Luis Aragones but he isn‘t getting carried away just yet, adding;

“We need to make a fair analysis of the game. We enjoyed all the luck and it's very difficult to win 4-0 in a World Cup.”

Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin pulls no punches with his verdict of his side’s performance;

“Spain are a strong and technically excellent side but there were times when we looked like the worst team in Europe. I apologise to all the Ukraine fans and I hope this will never be repeated.”

Those of you busy checking your wall charts before the tournament began would not have had Saudi Arabia v Tunisia down as a potential first phase thriller. However, the two play out an entertaining 2-2 draw in Munich to blast Group H wide open.

Zaid Jaziri opens the scoring on 23 minutes for the Africans, but Yasser Al Kahtani responds with a clever flick on 57. Former Wolves man and Saudi striking legend Sami Al Jaber looks to have won it five minutes from time with a cool finish, but Bolton centre back Rahdi Jaidi has the last word of a breathless second half, nodding home Jaziri’s cross to earn his side what could still be a vital point;

“We weren't very assured. While the first goal gave us a boost, it was not enough.” suggests a clearly dissatisfied Tunisia boss Roger Lemerre;

“We showed two faces in this match. At first, we were nervous, we were scared of Tunisia. But at half-time I told them to attack down the wings and despite the late goal I was happy with the result.” claims Saudi Arabia’s Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta.

England scrape through to the last 16 of World Cup 2006 with an unconvincing 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago in Nuremburg on June 15.

With the score sheet blank and just seven minutes remaining, the headline writers are relishing the prospect of tearing into Sven Goran Eriksson’s side once more. At which point, Peter Crouch gets his head to a typically pin-point David Beckham cross to give England the lead. Just to make sure, Steven Gerrard makes a rare foray into enemy territory, showing Frank Lampard exactly how it is done with a rasping left-foot drive in the final minute;

“I am rather pleased, the players showed a lot of patience and that paid off.” is the Swede’s positive spin on this one. Turning his attentions to the battle against his homeland on Tuesday (June 20) he adds;

“We must now immediately begin our preparations for the game against Sweden. We haven't beaten them for a long time, so it would be nice to do it in Cologne.”

That match-up is now a Group B decider after Lars Lagerback’s side snatch an equally unconvincing 1-0 win over Paraguay in Berlin. The Swede’s cannot find a breakthrough until Freddie Ljungberg’s header two minutes from time eliminates the South American side;

“It's always frustrating sitting on the bench creating goalscoring chances and you can't put them in the net.” offers Lagerback, who must be talented if he can create goalscoring chances from the bench.

Goal-hero Ljungberg adds a puzzling;

“It was absolutely the best match I have ever experienced.”;

Parguay coach Anibal Ruiz does not enjoy the experience quite so much;

“It hurts but we have to congratulate the other team. Let me say that it is really deeply painful.” he says of his side‘s early exit;

Joining England in the second phase of the competition for sure are Ecuador, following their 3-0 drubbing of the soon to be departed Costa Rica in Group A in Hamburg.

Carlos Tenorio and Agustin Delgado become the seventh and eighth players to score twice at these finals, before Ivan Kaviedes puts the tin hat on the win in the dying moments. The result eliminates both Costa Rica and Poland, and takes Germany into the second round along with the South Americans;

“Today is a very important day for Ecuador, a historic day.” confirms boss Luis Suarez as Ecuador celebrates arguably it’s greatest ever sporting achievement;

“We must now enjoy this moment and then concentrate on making a good performance against Germany before we find out who our next rival will be.” says Suarez, setting his sights on the Group A leadership;

“We haven't come to the World Cup just for the ride.” he warns.

Group C is not so much the Group Of Death as the Group Of Public Execution for Serbia-Montenegro, who are hit with six strokes of the cane by masterful Argentina in Gelsenkirchen on June 16.

Maxi Rodriguez starts the rout on six minutes, latching on to a Javier Saviola pass before the South Americans conjure up one of the greatest team goals in World Cup history 25 minutes later. A mesmerising, befuddling 24 passes find their targets before Hernan Crespo’s back-heel allows Estebian Cambiasso to rifle home.

Rodriguez’s second of the afternoon makes it three before half-time, and when former Chelsea striker Mateja Kezman is dismissed on 65 minutes the goals flow once more. Crespo gets his second of the competition on 78 minutes, while Carlos Tevez comes off the bench to make it 5-0 six minutes from time. The proverbial icing on the cake is applied by Barcelona starlet Lionel Messi, who caps his first taste of World Cup action with the sixth with just two minutes remaining;

“I cannot remember when we last played as well.” beams Argentina coach Jose Pekerman;

“We were on a roll after the first two goals and it is clear we have a great team.” he boasts.

The result puts Argentina into the last 16 and sends Serbia-Montenegro home early from their first and last World Cup under that name. Clearly dazed, coach Ilija Petkovic leaves the talking to skipper and misfiring striker Savo Milosevic;

“We lost to one of the best, if not the best, side so far.” observes the former Aston Villa favourite;

“We couldn't find a way to organise or defend well.” he suggests, blaming nobody in particular.

Holland also advance from Group C, beating unlucky Ivory Coast 2-1 in Stuttgart. Arsenal star Robin van Persie sets the Dutch on their way with a free-kick on 23 minutes, and it is not long before that advantage is increased. With the Africans still in some disarray, Ruud van Nistelrooy springs a decidedly faulty offside trap to double his side’s money just four minutes later. At that point the Elephants find their rhythm, with Bakari Kone thrashing a right foot shot past Edwin van der Sar seven minutes before half-time.

In a tense second half Marco van Basten’s men hang on, ending the Ivorians interest in the tournament despite two busy performances;

“We started very well but after that it became difficult. In the second half we could only defend.” admits a relieved van Basten;

“We'll take it step by step. We'll see how it goes against Argentina next.” he adds, with a distinct lack of relish.

Ivory Coast coach Henri Michel doesn’t see much consolation in his side‘s performances;

“Everyone tells me this team plays great football. What's more important is the result. We're out and that's the bottom line. It means that the Ivory Coast are still not at the level of the big teams.”

As if to prove that England are not the only bottom-achingly tedious side at Germany 2006, Mexico and Angola serve up a paralysing goalless draw in Group D in Hanover. The Angolans hold out for the last 11 minutes with 10 men after Andre Macanga is given a second yellow card for handball, thus keeping their own hopes alive and denying the Mexicans the luxury of qualification for the last 16 with a game to spare;

“We controlled the ball but when it doesn't go in, you end up as we did with a draw.” offers Mexico coach Ricardo La Volpe, who is just about as ticked off as Michel.

Things are much brighter and indeed breezier in the Angola camp, with coach Luis Concalves announcing;

“The draw is a signal that we have arrived and are building a very good team.”

No World Cup is complete without its fair share of shocks, but to this point Germany 2006 had been disappointingly devoid of upsets. Only Trinidad and Tobago’s battling draw with Sweden (June 10) measured anywhere on the shock-o-meter, until that is the Czech Republic run into Ghana in Group E in Cologne on June 17.

The Black Stars are in front as early as the second minute when Asamoah Gyan arrows a left-foot drive past Petr Cech. Gyan then has the opportunity to double his side’s lead from the penalty spot, Thomas Ujfalusi having been dismissed for felling Matthew Amoah on 66 minutes. However, Gyan’s spot-kick cannons off an upright before falling to safety to offer the Czechs a lifeline.

Outnumbered and over-run, Karel Bruckner’s side cannot take advantage of their let-off, as Ghana run riot creating chance after chance in the final quarter. Their profligacy threatens to be costly, until Sulley Muntari finally finds the mark eight minutes from time to complete a 2-0 win;

“We were forced to play an open game, which suited them.” offers Bruckner, sounding like Sven Goran Eriksson waking up from a terrible dream.

By contrast Ghana’s Serbian-born coach Ratomir Djukovic is just glad that his flight home now has a fair chance of being delayed;

“You know as a coach you always have your luggage packed so you are ready to go.” he says;

“It was a very tough game but my players played excellently. I was only surprised it wasn't more than 2-0.” he adds, gloating now.

There’s mayhem in Group E’s other game, as the United States and Italy draw 1-1 in Kaiserslautern. Three players receive their marching orders, with the game eventually reduced to the kind of short-sided affair which might actually prove more popular Stateside.

Alberto Gilardino heads Italy into a 22nd minute lead before the carnage begins with Christian Zaccardo’s bizarre sliced own goal on 27. Barely a minute later Daniele De Rossi’s is dismissed for a vicious elbow on Brian McBride, and is joined on the sidelines by Pablo Mastroeni on the stroke of half-time. Mastroeni lunges in suspiciously two-footed at Andrea Pirlo receiving a straight red from Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda, and it is 10-a-side heding into the break.

The parity doesn’t last long, as Eddie Pope becomes the third player given his marching orders after ill-advisedly felling Gilardino from behind barely two minutes into the second period. Later, DeMarcus Beasley has what would have been a winner chalked off thanks to an offside McBride’s presence in the line of sight of a flapping Gianluigi Buffon;

“I'm disappointed and angry.” blasts Italy boss Marcello Lippi;

“We didn't go into this match in the right frame of mind and we paid for that with the nervous way we played and with the mistakes we made.”

Of the shamed De Rossi he observes;

“I'm sorry as he's a good kid but he's made the umpteenth mistake.”

Opposite number Bruce Arena cannot be said to be any more content with proceedings;

“Two red cards is pretty harsh. There is no way you can train a team to play 10 against nine for 30-something minutes..” he suggests, finishing on a more positive note with;

“We are where we wanted to be going into the third round of matches, perhaps four points will be enough to get out of this group.”

The madness of Group E is in stark contrast to the average fare on offer from Group D earlier. Portugal earn their place in the second round of the World Cup for the first time in 40 years with a less than convincing 2-0 win over Iran in Frankfurt.

Barcelona midfielder Deco’s long range scorcher on 63 minutes settles the nerves of an uninspired Portuguese outfit, before Cristiano Ronaldo converts a penalty on 80 following a foul on Luis Figo by Yahya Golmohamaddi;

“This is a historic moment for Portugal.” insists coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, while Iran boss Branko Ivankovic points out his team’s limitations as they bow out;

“Deco scored a quality goal. After that it was very hard for us to equalise.”

France’s participation in the World Cup beyond the group stage is in some doubt after they are held 1-1 by South Korea in Group G in Leipzig on June 18.

Matters seem well under control for Raymond Domenech’s men after a bright start, with Thierry Henry netting after only nine minutes. Yet after Patrick Vieira’s header was wrongly adjudged not to have crossed the line by Mexican referee Benito Archundia France revert to the negative tactics which stifled them in their opening game against Switzerland. An hitherto woeful South Korea snatch a point when Cho Jin-Jae’s header is bundled in by Park Ji-Sung nine minutes from time;

“I'm disappointed but we still have a game against Togo.” says Domenech, despite reports that the Togolese are still threatening to boycott their remaining games over a pay dispute;

“Perhaps we should have counter-attacked quicker and should have geared up and put more pressure on them.” continues hindsight genius Domenech.

South Korea coach Dick Advocaat admits that his side hardly laid siege to the French goal, despite being a goal down for much of the contest;

“We improved as the game went on and scored one of the few chances we had.” he offers.

On to Group F shenanigans and the much awaited clash between Brazil and Australia in Munich. The South Americans churn out a similarly disappointing performance to that offered against Croatia on Tuesday (June 13), but again escape with the win which takes them through to the last 16. The favourites survive a missed open goal by Harry Kewell among other things to get home with goals from an otherwise lacklustre Adriano and substitute Fred;

“We imposed both our style of playing, passing the ball around, and also imposed ourselves physically.” claims an optimistic Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, while opposite number Guus Hiddink merely shrugs and looks forward to further battles ahead;

“Even after this loss, morale is very high and we still hope to go through. The players are eager and ambitious.” he insists.

All three sides under Brazil are still just about afloat in the competition after Croatia and Japan play out a goalless draw in Nuremburg. Darijo Srna’s 21st minute penalty is beaten away by Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi before Niko Krancjar rattles the Japanese crossbar with a thunderbolt soon after. Japan’s best chance falls at the feet of Atsushi Yanagisawa who inexplicably skews wide in a moment of Kewell-esque folly;

Reading from the Hiddink manual, Croatia coach Zlatko Krancjar looks to the future;

“If we win the next game we go to the next round - the players still have enough strength to get a good result.” he states, seemingly relishing Thursday’s clash with the Aussies (June 22).

Japan coach Zico is in no mood to celebrate his native Brazil‘s passage into round two, instead concocting conspiracy theories about kick-off times;

“It's a crime that we had to play in this heat again. Our last game was at 3pm too but they want to do it that way for television. I guess business is business.” he sneers.

Remembering that a game has taken place he adds;

“We lost our way a little bit in the second half. But while you're still breathing you're still alive and we'll do all we can to stay alive.”

Lost your first ever World Cup finals match 4-0? No problem. Just go out and win your second one by the same score.

This is the blueprint for success followed by Ukraine, who thump Saudi Arabia in Hamburg in Group H on June 19. They’re ahead inside four minutes when a corner-kick trickles in off Andriy Rusol’s knee, and never look back. It’s clear that the game is entering some other-worldly state of silliness when Sergey Rebrov rattles in the second from 30 yards on 36 minutes.

Andriy Shevchenko’s first ever World Cup finals goal arrives just after half-time, before Chelsea’s new man lays the fourth on a plate for the impressive Maxim Kalinichenko just six minutes from time;

“It's a little bit like Cinderella. The pumpkin turned into a beautiful coach and the other animals turned into wonderful horses.” waffles Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin, who has obviously been up past midnight on way too many occasions lately.

Saudi coach Marcos Paqueta is keeping the faith despite his side‘s loss, displaying frightening levels of delusion;

“We will have to concentrate on the match against Spain. We will get all the players involved and take care of the speed of the Spanish team.” he claims, straining to be heard over the muffled chuckling.

Won your first World Cup game 4-0? Well, don’t get too comfortable just yet, otherwise some upstart nation whom you are expected to thrash might just come up and bite you on the bottom. There’s a lesson in there somewhere for Spain, who need a stirring second half display to see off the threat of Tunisia in Stuttgart, thus qualifying for the last 16 from Group H.

The Africans take a shock lead on eight minutes, Zaid Jaziri’s dogged nuisance value creating a chance for Joahar Mnari to beat Iker Casillas at the second attempt. Spain are about to succumb to their own frustration when second half substitute and sometime Spanish icon Raul follows up Cesc Fabregas’ shot to equalise on 71.

From then on it is the Fernando Torres show, the Atletico Madrid star capitalising on some shambolic goalkeeping from Ali Boumnijel to put his side in the lead. With time running out Torres is grabbed by Alaeddine Yahia in the act of jumping, picking himself up to blast past Boumnijel from the spot to become the tournament’s outright leading goalscorer with three;

“I knew it would be a very complicated and difficult game.” claims Spain coach Luis Aragones, adding;

“After Cesc (Fabregas) took a shot and Raul got the goal, it became much easier to open them up.”

Tunisia boss Roger Lemerre points the finger at Boumnijel, who should arguably have turned Fabregas’ shot around the post for a corner in the build-up to the Raul goal;

“I am very disappointed because we had good tactics, but it all crumbled because of a single mistake.” he states, Martin Jol-like. Heaven knows what he made of his goalkeeper’s antics for the second Spanish goal;

“The Ukraine game will be decisive and we will have to do a better job to make it to the last 16.” he warns, pointing to Friday’s pivotal clash with Blokhin’s men (June 23).

Mercifully the Togo squad ordain to grace the World Cup with their exalted presence, despite several threats to pull out of their match with Switzerland over a pay dispute. They needn’t have bothered, going down tamely 2-0 by virtue of goals from Alexander Frei on 16 minutes and the fantastically monikered Tranquillo Barnetta on 87.

Swiss coach Koebi Kuhn has been studying the goal difference stats;

“The players knew that in the last minutes we needed to do everything to score another.” he observes, as his side move within a draw with South Korea of the second phase;

“I think the players gave 100% effort but with the problems we've had, we couldn't play any better.” suggests Togo coach Otto Pfister.

Victory for England over Sweden still proves elusive as Sven’s men draw 2-2 with Lars Lagerback’s side in Cologne on June 20.

The result gives England the Group B leadership going into the knockout phase of the tournament, but comes at a particularly heavy price. Barely a minute has passed when Michael Owen breaks down near the touchline without a Swedish player anywhere in the vicinity. Post-game chat about scans and waiting and seeing hardly masks the likelihood that Owen will not return for the duration of Germany 2006.

If the prognosis on Owen is dire, the introduction of Peter Crouch in his absence represents yet more terror for England fans. On a booking from an earlier game, Crouch has to get through 89 minutes or more without getting himself suspended, thus reducing England’s striking options to a half-fit megastar and a young boy who seems to have bunked onto the plane without anyone noticing.

Crouch achieves this aim without any real alarm, but his actual contribution to the game is limited. Joe Cole is easily England’s best player, and as if to cement this fact rattles in an audacious volley to give his side the lead on 34 minutes. Six minutes after half-time that revered defender David Beckham is somehow left marking Swedish striker Marcus Allback who sends a deft header in past the despairing and frankly over-dramatic efforts of Ashley Cole on the line.

A tiring Wayne Rooney is then withdrawn for the previously rested Steven Gerrard, and it is the Liverpool man who again pops up to head England into what looks like a winning lead five minutes before time. However, more shambolic defending sees John Terry completely miss a long throw, an error compounded by Sol Campbell’s aimless hack which allows Henrik Larsson to steal a point at the death;

“We did not defend very well against set-pieces - we have to work on that before the next game.” says Sven, stating the bleeding obvious.

Unimpressed with his team’s first half display, Lagerback is more positive about the action after the break;

“It was better in the second half. We almost deserved three points. We were the better team in the second half.” he claims.

Sweden’s draw is enough to take them through to the second round, but they would have been there anyway thanks to Trinidad and Tobago’s inability to beat Paraguay in Kaiserslautern. The South Americans win 2-0 thanks to a Brent Sancho own goal on 25 minutes and Nelson Cuevas’ 86th minute goal;

“This victory doesn't mean much in the way of this World Cup, but it does give the young players, who are our future, something to build on.” suggests an optimistic Paraguay coach Anibal Ruiz;

“This has been a great experience. In future maybe our players will show a bit more confidence.” comments Trinidad and Tobago coach Leo Beenhakker, whose side finish bottom of Group B as a result of their loss.

England face Ecuador in the last 16 in Stuttgart on Sunday (June 25) after Luis Suarez’s side are soundly whipped 3-0 by Germany in Berlin. The Germans take Group A honours to set up a meeting with Sweden in Munich on Saturday (June 24) with a brace from the tournament’s leading scorer Miroslav Klose and a third from Lucas Podolski;

“We need to improve if we want to go any further in this World Cup.” concedes Suarez, though he is speaking some hours before watching John Terry and Sol Campbell defend throw-ins;

“The team know if we play to our full potential we need fear no one, but we must keep our feet on the ground.” warns German boss Jurgen Klinsmann.

Group A wooden spoonists are Costa Rica after they go down 2-1 to fellow also-rans Poland in Hanover. Ronald Gomez fires in a 24th minute free-kick for Los Ticos but a brace by Bartosz Bosacki gives the Poles all three points;

“It would have been a pity to go home without any points or goals.” says a slightly relieved Polish coach Pawel Janas, before turning his attentions to his future;

“I have not thought about resigning and I am not going to decide right now.”

Costa Rica boss Alexandre Guimaraes feels his side could have done better in all three of their Group A games;

“We paid dearly for our distractions. They cost us in all three matches.” he laments.

With both teams having already qualified for the knockout phase the June 21 Group C clash between Holland and Argentina in Frankfurt is everything you feared it might be.

Two half-strength sides plod around aimlessly for 90 minutes before settling for the inevitable goalless draw, a state of affairs which leaves neither manager unduly worried;

“We could not take any risks today, but the players still showed they had the motivation to try to win the game.” insists Argentina coach Jose Pekerman after resting several of his stars;

“Our organisation was good and, if we can bring a bit more footballing quality, it may be time for us to start winning.” counters equally cautious Dutch boss Marco van Basten.

Ivory Coast and Serbia-Montenegro produce a more eventful affair in their dead rubber in Munich. The Africans emerge with a 3-2 victory despite falling two goals behind in the first 20 minutes courtesy of Nikola Zigic and Sasa Ilic. Aruna Dindane’s 37th minute penalty brings the Ivorians back into the contest after Serbian defender Albert Nadj had been dismissed for a second bookable offence. The comeback is completed by a second Dindane goal and a second penalty, this time converted by Bonaventure Kalou with only four minutes on the clock;

“I'm satisfied as we finally won, but once again we had the same problems.” huffs soon to be ex-Ivory Coast manager Henri Michel;

“At this level that's not good enough and if the Ivory Coast wants to be competitive at this level we must sort out this sort of problem.” he continues.

Meanwhile Serbia-Montenegro coach Ilija Petkovic focuses much of his ire on Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez;

“By awarding two penalties against us he allowed Ivory Coast to dominate the game.” wails Petkovic, who will also be relieved of his duties following his side’s exit;

“The referee did what he had to do but he should ask himself several questions about the way he handled the match.” he adds, like a dog with a bone.

There is one issue to be resolved in Group D as Angola look to score the goals against Iran which will help them seize on any slip-up by Mexico against Portugal.

Angolan hopes are raised early on as Portugal race into a two-goal lead in Gelsenkirchen, Chelsea reserve Maniche notching after good work on the left by Simao. The Benfica winger then adds a second from the penalty spot following Rafa Marquez’s handball aberration on 24 minutes. Mexico clutch a lifeline when Jose Fonseca heads home five minutes later, but despite being much the better side after the break cannot find a way back to parity.

Their failure to do so is partly down to Omar Bravo, who blasts a penalty over the Portuguese bar before wasting yet another clear opportunity just moments later. Mexican hopes are all but extinguished when Luis Perez is sent off for an alleged dive soon after, and Portugal’s win sees them top Group D, meaning a second round shoot-out with Holland on Sunday (June 25);

“This was as tough a game as we had expected, but I asked my players today to make it hard for me to pick my team for the next round, and they did that.” says Big Phil Scolari, after leaving out all five of his previously booked stars including Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco.

At that point Mexico’s hopes rest on the result coming in from Leipzig and for a short while the impossible is within reach for Angola. They take the lead against the Iranians through Amado Flavio’s header on the hour. However, pushing for the second which would have had bottoms squeaking all over Mexico, Angola are pegged back by Sohrab Bakhtiarizadeh’s equaliser 14 minutes from time. The proverbial stuffing visibly knocked from their beings, Angola’s challenge fizzles out and it is Mexico who go through to meet Argentina in the last 16;

“We always knew this was going to be a difficult group - every one of the groups is difficult.” sighs a relieved Mexico manager Ricardo La Volpe;

“We were not intelligent enough to defend our 1-0 lead but I'm still proud of my players.” offers Angola coach Luis Goncalves, perhaps getting his maths a bit skewed.

Last word goes to Iran coach Branko Brankovic, who thinks Angola should count their lucky stars instead of dreaming of what might have been;

“We dominated the 90 minutes and perhaps deserved a victory today. The conditions were very hard but the players put their heart and soul into the match.” he states.

The Black Stars of Ghana make their mark on their first ever World Cup finals, progressing to the knockout stage after a dramatic last day in Group E on June 22.

Needing a win over the United States in Nuremburg the Africans are given the perfect start on 22 minutes. Claudio Reyna is an American working in Manchester, so he has probably been mugged before. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the fleecing he receives from Haminu Dramani on the edge of the US penalty area, allowing the Ghana man to give his side the advantage.

Feeling guilty, the Ghanains then offer a gift to their opponents close to half-time, DeMarcus Beasley seizing on Derek Boateng’s errant pass to set up Clint Dempsey for the equaliser. Yet the first half scoring is not at an end, as German referee Markus Merk awards a controversial penalty to Ghana in stoppage time for an alleged foul by Oguchi Onyewu on Razak Pimpong.

Stephen Appiah steps forward to convert from the spot, and Ghana survive the second half to book their place in the last 16;

“This is an historic moment for us.” beams Ghana coach Ratomir Djukovic;

“This is a starting point for all Ghanaians, for this group of players and myself. The first time in the World Cup and we come in the world's top 16.” he adds, almost in disbelief.

“I am disappointed in the ref's judgment of the penalty.” announces US coach Bruce Arena with some justification;

“We would have liked to come out at half-time with a chance to win it.” he adds, perhaps exaggerating the gravity of his side’s situation at the half way mark.

Ghana’s win means that one of Group E’s supposed big two are on their way home, with Italy needing a draw to progress against the Czech Republic in Hamburg. Their cause isn’t helped by Allessandro Nesta’s early withdrawal with a groin injury, but his replacement Marco Matterazi surprises everyone by heading in the opening goal on 26 minutes.

The Czech’s task is made all the more difficult on the stroke of half-time when Jan Polak clatters through the back of Francesco Totti, earning himself a second yellow card in the process. A man down and with less striking options than Liverpool, the Czech Republic rarely threaten an equaliser after the break. They finally see their World Cup dream shattered when Pippo Inzaghi breaks clear to round Petr Cech for an easy second just three minutes from time;

“This team has terrific spirit, probably the most fighting spirit I've had in any team.” boast Italy coach Marcello Lippi, though one gets the feeling he is struggling for nice things to say about his troops on this evidence;

“Playing with 10 men was just too difficult. We lost a lot of players before the game and had suspensions which hurt us in this tournament.” offers Czech coach Karel Bruckner, making absolutely no excuses.

Carnage in Stuttgart as English referee Graham Poll loses the plot during the Group F eliminator between Australia and Croatia. Poll puts a new slant on the term ‘three card trick’ by showing a trio of yellow cards to Josip Simunic before finally producing the red card at the final whistle. By then the two sides had produced a game bursting with incident, all set in motion as early as the second minute by Dario Srna’s expert free-kick.

A handball by Stjepan Tomas offers the Socceroos a route back into the game, Craig Moore converting from the spot on 38 minutes before Guus Hiddink becomes the early favourite to be the subject of tomorrow’s nasty headlines. Having left out Middlesbrough goalkeeper and regular number one Mark Schwarzer in favour of Zeljko Kalac, Hiddink looks on as his new stopper allows Niko Kovac’s 56th minute grass cutter to slip through his hands and into the net.

The Aussies press for the equaliser which will see them through and after missing from close range moments earlier, a suspiciously offside Harry Kewell levels matters 11 minutes from time;

“One goal was perhaps offside, the other possibly wasn't a penalty.” claims Croatia boss Zlatko Krancjar, adding cryptically;

“I don't want to comment on the referee. We missed our chances.”

“I know this team, this team can react always and it did again this time.” explains Hiddink, exhaling heavily, wiping his brow and thanking God for Harry Kewell and Graham Poll.

Champions Brazil suffer the indignity of going a goal down to Japan in Dortmund before fighting back for a 4-1 win. Kieji Tamada fires the Asian side into an unlikely lead on 33 minutes but Ronaldo’s header just on half-time levels matters. Juninho rifles a belter through the flailing grasp of Japan goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, before left-back Gilberto’s first goal for his country makes it 3-1. Ronaldo’s second goal leaves him level with Gerd Muller as the all-time record goalscorer in World Cup finals play with 14 goals;

“Ronaldo is not in the best possible physical shape but step by step and little by little he is getting there.” insists Brazil boss Carlos Alberto Parreira;

“Brazil played well and exploited our uncertainties and weaknesses well.” is the reasonable assessment of Japan boss Zico.

June 23 is the final day of first round group games in Germany with groups G and H tidying up their unfinished business.

The burning issue of the day is whether 1998 champions France can make it out of Group G, with the ghosts of their 2002 failure to reach round two getting set for another appearance. The French take on Togo in Cologne knowing that anything other than a win definitely sends them home early.

A frustrating first half for Les Bleus ends goalless and sets nerves jangling, but on the occasion of his 30th birthday former Arsenal star Patrick Vieira nets ten minutes into the second period. Just six minutes later and former club colleague Thierry Henry is on hand to net his second goal of the tournament to take Raymond Domenech’s side through;

“It's stressful when you don't score.” observes Domenech, which will be news to Sven Goran Eriksson;

“Especially when we couldn't afford to concede a goal.” adds the France boss.

Togo coach Otto Pfister has had an eventful fortnight, walking out on the squad only to return to find the players still indulging in the wrangling which provoked his departure. Nevertheless, he seems to have enjoyed himself;

“Most of our players don't even play in top divisions and they played a great match.” he points out.

France’s win means that only one of South Korea and Switzerland are going to make it through, with the two meeting in Hanover to sort it out. A draw will do the Swiss, while the 2002 semi-finalists know that a win will take them on another wild ride at world level.

On a day of Arsenal players hitting the target a bleeding Philippe Senderos runs away jubilantly after heading the Swiss in front, nutting the forehead of Jin-Cheul Choi in the process. With the Koreans hearing bad tidings from Cologne and pushing for an equaliser, they fall further behind amid a fair amount of confusion 13 minutes from time.

With the assistant referee wrongly flagging for offside, the ball breaks off a Korean defender into the path of Alexander Frei, who nets his second goal of Germany 2006;

“It was a very intense match. South Korea are a good team and we were a bit lucky at times.” is Switzerland coach Koebi Kuhn’s magnanimous verdict;

“Most of the decisions didn't go our way and some were not to our liking.” wails South Korea boss Dick Advocaat. Well, you didn’t expect him to match the grace of Kuhn in defeat, did you?

No respecters of the alphabet FIFA decree that Group H should come to its conclusion earlier in the day, with Ukraine and Tunisia battling it out to follow Spain into round two.

The Berlin clash between the two is possibly the dullest of the tournament so far, even usurping the drudgery on offer in England’s tedium-fests with Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago. Needing only a point to secure their progress, Oleg Blokhin’s side embrace the concept of extreme caution while Tunisia lack the invention to really threaten.

The Africans’ problems are compounded moments before half-time when Zied Jaziri picks up a rather harsh second yellow card for a tackle on Anatoliy Tymoschuk. The second half is even more drab than the first, lit up only by a generous looking penalty awarded for a foul on Andriy Shevchenko by Karim Haggui. The Chelsea new boy picks himself up to slot home his second goal of the tournament from the spot, sealing a place in the last 16 for Ukraine in their debut World Cup apperance;

“I was nervous until the very end. Now I'm very satisfied.” grins Blokhin.

Tunisia boss Roger Lemerre is not feeling such gratification but refuses to let it get him down, commenting;

“We share the disillusionment of the Tunisian fans but life goes on. We now have to think about qualification for the next African Nations Cup and the next World Cup.”

All of which makes Spain’s match-up with Saudi Arabia in Kaiserslautern fairly academic. For the record, Luis Aragones’s sends out a reserve side to make it three wins out of three so far, Juanito heading the only goal of the game on 36 minutes;

“We didn't play too badly in the first half and maybe could have had another goal, but fell apart in the second and were at their mercy.” grumbles an unimpressed Aragones, adding;

“They deserved to score a goal and get at least a draw from the match.”

Saudi coach Marcos Paqueta just seems pleased to have visited Germany;

“We're going to leave with a nice impression. It was a nice experience to test ourselves against high level opposition.”

With the business of group games out of the way, it’s time for the nail-biting, nerve-jangling, hair-raising knockout stages of World Cup 2006 to begin. Sixteen teams still have designs on becoming world champions going into Saturday’s play (June 24), two of whom see their dreams shattered before the day is done.

As they did in round one it is the hosts Germany who get proceedings under way, facing Sweden in Munich. Jurgen Klinsmann’s side show England a thing or two about how to see off the challenge of a mediocre outfit, beating Lars Lagerback’s men by an unflattering 2-0 scoreline.

It takes just four minutes for the Germans to take the lead, Lukas Podolsky firing in via Olof Mellberg’s head after Miroslav Klose’s effort is blocked. Eight minutes later and Podolsky nets his second of the match and third of the tournament, latching on to Klose’s pass to double the lead. With the Germans dominating the task is made all the more difficult for Sweden when Teddy Lucic receives a second yellow card for pulling Klose’s shirt ten minutes before half-time.

Even when offered a route back into the contest Sweden cannot help themselves, as Henrik Lasson blasts a penalty high over Jens Lehmann’s crossbar. At that point the game is over as a contest, as both teams potter around aimlessly in the heat waiting for the inevitable;

“We will not finish in the quarter-finals. Our appetite is getting bigger and not smaller.” insists Klinsmann following the final whistle;

“In a footballing nation like Germany and with the World Cup held here, it just cannot stop now.” he adds hopefully.

Lagerback starts the now mandatory tirade against officialdom from the losing coach in the standard fashion;

“I don't want to speak about the referee.” he starts, before succumbing to temptation anyway;

“But he had some influence on the game. Maybe the referee did not stand up to the pressure. It's tough enough to play a side like Germany with 11 men, let alone with 10.”

No blame to Lucic, then?

Hoping to dampen Klinssmann’s spirits in the last eight will be Argentina, after they overcome Mexico 2-1 in extra time in Leipzig. Yet their passage to the quarter-finals is not as straightforward as many had imagined it might be, with Mexico taking the lead after only five minutes through Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez.

Five minutes later and normal service is resumed, as Chelsea’s Hernan Crespo fights Mexican striker Jared Borgetti for the honour of claiming the equaliser. Yet the Argentines, much fancied by many observers to go all the way to World Cup glory, cannot shake the Mexican challenge until eight minutes into the extra period. At which point Maxi Rodriguez matches Crespo’s tournament tally of three goals with a vicious volley past Oswaldo Sanchez;

“It's vital to take the chance when it arrives in as well-balanced a meeting as that.” reckons Argentina coach Jose Pekerman, adding;

“And we did - deservedly so. It was a match between two rivals who know each other so well.”

Mexico coach Ricardo La Volpe, third choice goalkeeper in Argentina’s victorious 1978 World Cup squad agrees that Rodriguez’s moment of inspiration is the difference between the two sides;

“It was an even game, just as I expected it to be, and it was a magnificent individual goal that decided it.” he explains;

“Once again, though, we didn't achieve what we came to do, which was to reach the quarter-finals at least.” adds the chain-smoking tactician.

Yet again it is decidedly unconvincing, and yet again England squeak over another hurdle in the manner of Red Rum on a full stomach at World Cup 2006 in Germany.

Sven Goran Eriksson’s men sneak past Ecuador on June 25 by David Beckham’s solitary goal direct from a free-kick on the hour, with the captain’s only other contribution of note coming by way of his vomit hitting the Stuttgart turf moments later.

Eventually Beckham gives way to Aaron Lennon but by then England have bored the South Americans into an almost statue-esque state from which there is no return. Cue lots of talk about how 4-5-1 could work, how Michael Carrick rarely gives the ball away, and how England will only get better as the tournament progresses;

“We should have scored more goals but I am rather happy that we are in the quarter-finals again.” offers Sven, who in reaching the last eight has surely reached the very tip of his coaching capabilities at international level;

“We have not performed as well as we can do but it will come later.” he claims, although to call that assessment of events an old chestnut would be to cause gross offence to old chestnuts everywhere.

Clearly shaken after his ordeal, Beckham resorts to name dropping;

“Last night Wayne (Rooney) said I have been terrible in the last few games and Roberto Carlos texted me to score a goal for him so I am more than happy.”

Perhaps Beckham would like to give Frank Lampard’s phone number to one or two of his Galactico buddies;

“It was an ugly performance but it was what we wanted and we'll take ugly performances.” adds Beckham, a man not normally associated with all things ugly. Apart from maybe…………No.

Ecuador coach Luis Suarez can see what 40million overly optimistic Englishmen and one Swede apparently can’t;

“Both teams haven't had a lot of chances to score. The match was defined by the only way it could have been defined, which was a stopped-ball play.” he suggests, which is another way of saying that England don’t have a hope in Hell of scoring from anything other than a Beckham set-piece all day. You didn’t think he was in the side for his leadership qualities and wing trickery, did you?

Like it or not purists, England are in the quarter-finals and their opponents are to be decided in the evening game between Portugal and Holland in Nuremburg. The action starts peacefully enough, and there is even the odd moment of flowing football, not least of all when Maniche fires Portugal into the lead after 23 minutes.

The man who spent part of last season on loan at Chelsea has something of a hex on the Dutch, having scored the decisive and brilliant goal when the two teams met in the semi-final of Euro 2004. This time he capitalises on some neat footwork by Pauleta to step past a challenge and ram an instant shot past Edwin van der Sar.

From then on it is raining cards as Russian referee Valentin Ivanov produces a World Cup record four red cards, and books eight other players. First to go is Portugal midfielder Costinha who, having already felt the force of Valentin’s wrath sticks waves a wandering hand at the ball before half-time.

By this time Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo has been forced out of the Portugal line-up by an x-rated tackle courtesy of Khalid Bouhlarouz, and the Dutch defender is soon off after leaning an arm across Luis Figo.

Amid the mayhem Valentin fails to spot Figo’s Eskimo Kiss on Barcelona man Mark van Bommell, or indeed the scandalously simulated reaction of the former PSV man. Instead, the Russian merely wades through a melee of players to issue a yellow card to Gio van Bronkhorst among others.

Never far away from controversy, Deco escapes with a yellow after scything down Johnny Heitinga but turns it into a red for petulantly throwing the ball away after the award of a Holland free-kick. Keeping up? No, nor am I and by this time most observers of the beautiful game have lost interest anyway, as van Bronkhorst picks up his second booking for a tame trip in the dying moments.

As the whistle blows and the heads are counted, it is nine versus nine and Portugal who go on to face England in the last eight;

“In three-and-a-half years of coaching Portugal I've never ended a match with just nine players.” states a bewildered but probably relieved Luiz Felipe Scolari;

“Fifa always talks about fair play but tonight we saw several gestures that were anything but.”

Holland boss Marco van Basten can‘t bring himself to steer the conversation away from the performance of Ivanov and the indiscipline of the players on both sides either;

“It is a pity the referee made a mess of this game.” he storms;

“I think in the second half we only played 20 or 25 minutes of football. There was little playing time with all the injuries and the players going down all over the place.”

The cold hand of fear has taken a firm grip on the 2006 World Cup in Germany, with attacking ambition in short supply in the two second round match-ups on offer on June 26.

First on show are Italy, masters of dull negativity, as they take on tournament upstarts Australia in Kaiserslautern. The cautious approach of the Italians is matched only by the unwillingness of the Aussies to over-commit, making for an incident-starved encounter.

The Australian cause looks to be helped on 51 minutes when the hitherto excellent Marco Materazzi is ordered off for a rash challenge on the distinctly Italian sounding Marco Bresciano. Despite protests that Fabio Cannavaro is covering as the last man, Spanish referee Luis Cantalejo considers the tackle dangerous enough to warrant the waving of a straight red card in the direction of the former Everton man.

A man up, yet still Guus Hiddink’s side threaten only sparingly, looking just as likely to concede on the break against the fast-thinking, fast-moving Azzuri. Just as the game looks to be heading for an extra period Italy left-back Fabio Grosso skips past Bresciano, and is clumsily felled by an already grounded Lucas Neill. Francesco Totti’s penalty arrows past the re-instated Mark Schwarzer and is literally the last and most interesting kick of an otherwise forgettable encounter;

“I was never worried because there was still extra time to play and penalties.” shrugs Italy boss Marcello Lippi;

“This was a game that really had everything.” he offers madly, before totally contradicting himself with;

“In the first half, we didn't allow even one shot on goal - in the second, we struggled but we gave away little.”

So, it was a game that had everything in which very little happened. Impressive.

Hiddink now departs his post with Australia to become the new man in charge of the Russian national team, and leaves with some regrets;

“You can have doubts about the penalty, it was questionable.” he comments;

“We are very disappointed because we were so close. I think the only thing we can blame ourselves for is that we were not deadly enough in the area.”

Nor indeed were they IN the area all that often.

Think that one was bad? Try the bone-jarring tedium of Switzerland versus Ukraine in Cologne for the right to meet Italy in the last eight. Save for a rattling of the woodwork apiece, the two sides conspire to play for penalties in a way which makes one pine for Austria versus West Germany from 1982. In the end, and with some degree of inevitability, both teams get their wish and the tie does indeed come down to spot-kicks. The Swiss need to re-think their game-plan as they prepare to co-host Euro 2008, as not a single Swiss player can find the net with a free shot at goal from 12 yards.

Andriy Shevchenko does his best to keep Koebi Kuhn’s abject outfit interested, repeating his 2005 Champions League final antics by shooting tamely at Pascal Zuberbuhler. Yet the inoffensive, neutral Swiss cannot find it in their hearts to capitalise, with all of Marco Strellar, Tranquillo Barnetta and Ricardo Cabanas fluffing their big chance from the spot. All of which leaves Artem Milevskiy to provide the one genuine moment of skill with a deftly flicked penalty, before Oleg Gusev rifles home to book a potentially sleep-inducing date with the Italians in Hamburg on Friday (June 30);

“We just had more luck. Like Russian roulette.” offers Ukraine boss Oleg Blokhin, as the diary prepares to shoot itself in the temples out of sheer boredom;

“We were there to win today but you have to accept to lose. Victory is not always on your side.” says Kuhn, although victory got fed up and went home some time ago;

“I had a good feeling when Shevchenko missed his kick.” he concludes, showing that he has the foresight to at least match his tactical paralysis.

The line-up for the quarter-finals at World Cup 2006 in Germany is completed on June 27, but not without the expected levels of controversy and a liberal dash of ‘what if’?

Nobody fancies Ghana much going into their tie with Brazil in Dortmund, and when Ronaldo becomes the World Cup’s record goalscorer after only five minutes the African’s chances seem to range somewhere between slim and none. However, Ratomir Djukovic’s side rally and should equalise, before their hilarious offside trap is very questionably sprung by Adriano for the second close to half-time.

Djukovic is dispatched from the sidelines for his protests to referee Lubos Michel at the break, yet his charges continue to do their country proud with the kind of innovative, attacking football that the likes of England only dream about. However, maybe Messrs Eriksson and McLaren have it right after all, as the Black Stars’ only reward for their endeavour is to concede a third through Ze Roberto. But for a couple of heroic late saves from goalkeeper Richard Kingston the scoreline could be ugly, but Djukovic ignores this to concentrate on the performance of Michel;

“I told him it would be better if he put a yellow jersey on.” says Djukovic, explaining his dismissal. And he’s not talking Tour De France either;

“It is not a shame to lose to Brazil. I said before that Brazil were favoured to be champions.” he adds.

Ronaldo, whose early goal was his 15th in World Cup finals history breaking Gerd Muller’s all-time mark, comments;

“The record had stood for seven World Cups so I am naturally very pleased to beat it. We win as a team. I get goals and on we go.”

Over in Hanover the clash between Spain and France is among the most eagerly awaited of the competition so far. It does not disappoint, with Spain taking a 27th minute lead through a David Villa penalty. Defender Pablo Ibanez somehow finds himself in the French penalty area, only to be clumsily upended by none other than the experienced Lillian Thuram.

Raymond Domenech’s men are level four minutes before half-time, Franck Ribery slicing through a Ghana-inspired offside trap to round Iker Casillas and stroke the ball home. A keenly-fought second half turns via the dark art of play-acting, executed perfectly by the man so revered and adored on English soil, Thierry Henry. Running across the field to chase a hopeful punt Henry collides with Champions League final foe Carlos Puyol of Barcelona, at which point the Arsenal star clutches his face in the style of Rivaldo circa 2002 to secure the free-kick.

Fortunately Puyol is only shown yellow by referee Roberto Rosetti of Italy but the Spanish defender’s punishment is merely delayed. From the resultant set-piece, penalty box nuisance Xabi Alonso flicks the ball inadvertently on to the head of Patrick Vieira who squeezes a header in at the near post off defender Sergio Ramos.

There are only six minutes for Luis Aragones’ side to respond, but it is old master Zinedine Zidane who has the last word, breaking quickly on the counter to step inside Puyol and sweep the ball majestically past Casillas with time just about up;

“The Spanish made it difficult but the adventure continues.” offers Zidane, who might be glad that he will not be returning to Real Madrid next season;

“There's something exceptional waiting for us, unique emotions.” suggests Domenech ahead of a last eight meeting with Brazil.

Meanwhile Aragones takes defeat in a similar spirit to Djukovic before him;

“Their second goal came from a free kick that wasn't a foul and we were punished by a refereeing error.” he blasts, as relations with Henry threaten to reach an all-time low.

Two whole days without football is something of a shock to the system after recent events in Germany, so it is relief all round when the hosts get the quarter-finals under way against Argentina in Berlin on June 30.

A dull first half gives way to fireworks in the second, with Valencia defender Roberto Ayala heading Argentina into a 49th minute lead. This prompts an attacking response from the Germans, and it is no surprise when World Cup goal-machine Miroslav Klose heads an equaliser 10 minutes from time. It’s Klose’s fifth goal of World Cup 2006 and his 10th in World Cup finals football.

Yet it is not enough to bring victory to the home side at that point, as once again the agony of a penalty shoot-out ensues. 2006 has been a good year for Jens Lehmann as far as saving penalties from Argentines is concerned, and the Arsenal stopper adds to his Champions League semi-final stop from Juan Roman Riquelme of Villarreal with further saves here from Ayala and Esteban Cambiasso. Nerveless, faultless Germany take full advantage, as Oliver Neuville, Michael Ballack, Lukas Podolski and Tim Borowski all convert to take Jurgen Klinsmann’s side into the last four;

“It's difficult to find words.” he says, finding them anyway;

“The fantastic crowd carried us, they believed in us. We knew that even down a goal we'd come back. This is a team that's grown together over the past six weeks and we want to be world champions.”

Opposite number Jose Pekerman throws the towel in;

“This has come to an end and I will certainly not go on.” he promises;

“You have to make a decision and I'm convinced I've done everything in my reach, and it's time to look for something else.” he adds, updating his CV;

“I'm very sorry for the coaches and the fans and the players, this team deserves to go further but we couldn't make it.” concludes Pekerman, whose decision to substitute Riquelme with his side still leading by Ayala’s goal now looks a little questionable.

Ever the gracious losers, Argentina players are then involved in a highly undignified sideline brawl with German staff and FIFA officials. The cause is unclear, but something gets the collective goat of Gabriel Heinze, Maxi Rodriguez and Leandro Cufre and all are set to be investigated by the Blatterboys.

Back to the football and awaiting Jurgen’s boys in the semi-final are the winners of the Italy v Ukraine clash in Hamburg. The Azzuri are comfy enough as soon as Gianluca Zambrotta’s shot sneaks inside Oloxandr Shovkovskiy’s post within six minutes. The containment policy of Oleg Blokhin’s side out of the window, Italy capitalise further when Luca Toni notches his first two goals of the tournament on 59 and 69 minutes to seal his side’s passage;

“I'm really happy and really proud of what the players did today, but now we have to look forwards to the next match.” boasts Italy coach Marcello Lippi.

Blokhin shows the Argentines a thing or two about good grace, admitting that the better team will be advancing to the semi-finals;

“There's no such thing as good or bad luck here.” he confesses;

“The Italians have a great team and they don't forgive mistakes.”

Start the car Sven, we’re leaving.

England’s best hope of becoming world champions for a generation ends in the time honoured English tradition, with an inability to find five players capable of hitting a cow’s posterior from 12 yards. A goalless draw with Portugal in the July 1 Gelsenkirchen quarter-final precedes the inevitable, with Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher failing to beat Ricardo from the spot.

Yet England’s continued misery from the penalty spot is only part of the story this time. The main headlines are reserved for Wayne Rooney, who is ordered off shortly after the hour mark for an alleged stamp on Ricardo Carvalho. Gently shoving Manchester United team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo as the winger joined others in offering advice to Argentine referee Horacio Elizondo does not help Rooney’s cause. Stand by Sir Alex, the Manchester United training ground could be an interesting place to be on the first day of pre-season training.

A man down and with captain David Beckham having already limped off with an ankle injury, England turn in their most committed and bravest display of the tournament. Owen Hargreaves morphs into a tireless, pacy world-beater for the best part of an hour, but in truth outnumbered England only rarely offer a threat going forward. The same is true of Portugal also however, with Rio Ferdinand producing the kind of imperious display at the back that marked him out as one of the world’s best defenders at the World Cup in 2002. And so to spot-kicks, and a story as predictable as Sven Goran Eriksson’s presence on the front page of the Sunday tabloids;

“I was sure these players could get to the final and we should have done it.” offers the now ex-England coach Eriksson;

“The quarter-finals four years and two years ago was OK. This time it is not good enough. These players should at least have been in the final. It's more our fault rather than the force of Portugal.” he adds, feeling uncharacteristically guilty.

Portugal boss ‘Big Phil’ Scolari sounds like Sir Alex or Jose patronising a lower league side after a particularly troublesome FA Cup tie;

“Congratulations to England, with 10 players they were incredible.” he suggests, stopping short of sticking his praise where the sun doesn’t shine.

Those of you not over England’s exit probably won’t have seen and maybe won’t even care about France beating Brazil in the remaining quarter-final in Frankfurt. Most depressingly of all, it is cheating, eye-covering, media darling, va-va-voomster Thierry Henry who grabs the only goal of the game on 57 minutes. Carlos Puyol’s mate turns up at the far post to knock home a Zinedine Zidane free-kick, all of which proves enough to see off a lacklustre and over-rated Brazilian outfit;

“It was extraordinary. Sometimes there aren't any words to describe what you're experiencing. I tackled with them, I shot with them. The old men are still around.” muses France coach Raymond Domenech;

“We played well. We didn't steal anything from anybody.” adds Henry, his guilty conscience clearly still eating away at him.

Brazil’s last eight exit will be considered nothing short of a national disaster, and coach Carlos Alberto Pareirra is ready for the backlash;

“I didn't do my job as my job was to get to the final.” he concedes;

“In Brazil when the national team loses the coach is to blame so I believe we will follow this script once again.” he adds, preparing to exit stage left.

World Cup 2006 in Germany enters it’s last lap on July 4, with the final four left to battle it out over the next two days for a place in the Berlin final on Sunday (July 9).

First to test their credentials at this stage, as they have been in each knockout round so far, are the hosts. Jurgen Klinsmann’s surprisingly useful outfit take on Italy in Dortmund, a city in which they have won 13 of their last 14 international matches.

The caution of previous knockout games gives way to an open, end to end thriller between two traditional powers in world football. It is a surprise that nobody registers a goal within the first 90 minutes, with German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann continuing to impress. The Germans are mostly dangerous on the counter, but the balance offered by both teams between defence and attack puts the efforts of most countries to shame.

In the extra period Italy strike the woodwork twice in the space of a minute, Alberto Gilardino squeezing a shot beyond Lehmann and onto a post, before Gianluca Zambrotta cannons a spectacular drive off the crossbar before the Arsenal stopper can even smell the danger. At the other end Lukas Podolski should do better with a free header, and sees a shot brilliantly saved by Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

With just minutes remaining before the considerable threat of a penalty shoot-out becomes a reality an unlikely hero emerges. Feeding off good work inside the area from Andrea Pirlo, Fabio Grosso curls an unstoppable shot beyond Lehmann and into the far corner of the German net. The silence among the partisan German crowd is deafening, with the already tearful home support put out of their collective misery by Allesandro Del Piero’s neat finish from Gilardino’s lay-off just moments later;

“This is the realisation of a dream that has lasted a long time.” says Italy coach Marcello Lippi in reaction to leading his team to the World Cup final;

“If there was a team that was going to win this game, it was going to be us.” he adds, perhaps playing down the contribution of the German team to a dizzying spectacle.

Of Del Piero‘s late interjection the Prophet Lippi says;

“When I sent him on, I said to my friends on the bench he would score the decisive goal.”

Klinsmann puts his disappointment aside to heap praise on his side, a side which have confounded all the critics by travelling this far even in their own back yard;

“We are hugely disappointed but you must compliment our team.” he begins;

“It's something very special to play a World Cup in your home country. They (the German players) made a country proud.”

Despite the defeat, Klinsmann insists the World Cup has been a triumph for Germany both on and off the field;

“The World Cup has been a huge success for the team and for the country and has shown a whole new German face to the world and that is something we can all be proud of.” he concludes.

Enterprising, fear-free football during the knockout stages of the World Cup could never last, and so the competition reverts to type during the second semi-final between France and Portugal in Munich on July 5.

The teams are vying for the right to meet Italy in Sunday’s final (July 9) and from the very first whistle the crowd clamour to voice their disapproval of Portuguese winker Cristiano Ronaldo. No, that is not a typo. The Manchester United man is booed with every touch of the ball, but seems unfazed when he sets up an early chance for the busy Maniche.

Yet there are few players on either side who can match the endeavour of either the former Chelsea man or everyone’s least favourite step-over merchant, and it is little surprise that the game turns on a defensive error. Having been wrong-footed by Thierry Henry, Ricardo Carvalho sticks out a careless, stray leg to bring down the Arsenal dramatist on 33 minutes.

Who else but Zinedine Zidane could then take centre stage? The French legend, who is retiring from football at the end of the tournament, steps up to show one or two Englishmen how it is done against Ricardo from the penalty spot. Calmness personified and with the conspicuous absence of any vomit on this occasion, Zidane fires his spot-kick low into the bottom corner from a short run-up, making Lampard, Gerrard and Carragher look like Milligan, Secombe and Sellers.

In a non-event of a second half Portugal captain Luis Figo heads over, but it is the French team who book a place in the Berlin showdown against Marcello Lippi’s men;

“What matters now is to go all the way. We can't be content with that.” insists France boss Raymond Domenech, who seems to have forgotten a very recent time when he would have been happy to get out of a decidedly average opening group;

“We must recuperate and start focusing. We must give all we have in the final to make sure we have no regrets.” he adds.

Meanwhile Zidane’s efforts have a surreal effect on team-mate Lillian Thuram who, like a former member of Spandau Ballet who has fallen on hard times, comes over all nostalgic for the early 1980’s;

“I feel like the 10-year-old boy who watched the World Cup and found it beautiful.” proclaims the Juventus defender, almost breaking into a rendition of ‘Gold‘.

No Gold, nor even Silver in the Portugal camp now, and perhaps even more worryingly manager Luiz Felipe Scolari is starting to sound more like Sven every day;

“We did everything possible but if you don't score you don't win the game.” observes the man who relied on a strike force comprised entirely of the desperately average Pauleta;

“We had more control of the game but we couldn't put away our chances. It is a pity for us as we so wanted a place in the final.” concludes Figo, though I am sure he will forgive the diary if we don’t reach for the handkerchiefs at this point.

It’s the game that nobody wants to take part in on July 8 as World Cup hosts Germany take on Portugal in the third place play-off in Stuttgart.

While Oliver Kahn is offered an opportunity to bow out in style, the international career of Portugal’s Luis Figo looks set to end on a slightly different note. The Inter Milan player is left out of the starting eleven by Luiz Felipe Scolari amid rumours of a frank exchange of views.

On the field a poor first half passes goalleslly, before Bastian Schweinsteiger finally offers a snippet or two of the form which has made him a regular in Jurgen Klinsmann’s side. A mile from goal, the midfield man turns inside a defender and unleashes a fierce drive through Portugal stopper Ricardo on 56 minutes. Five minutes later the Bayern Munich man is causing more havoc, arrowing in a free-kick from just outside the area which is diverted into his own net by Armand Petit.

Suddenly the dour, defensive Portugal which sneaked through against England and France earlier in the tournament is replaced by a care-free band of mavericks on a mission. Yet within a minute of the introduction of Figo from the bench Schweinsteiger yanks another bunny from his headgear, lashing in an unstoppable drive from a similar range as his previous effort. Down and out in the game for the recently down and out, Portugal’s last significant act of World Cup 2006 fittingly involves Figo who crosses superbly for Nuno Gomes to head home from close range.

The final whistle prompts most of the German playing and coaching staff to forget about the fact that they haven’t actually won anything, and scenes of celebration ensue. Klinsmann seems particularly excited, which may or may not be because he is about to jump ship having proved most of his countrymen entirely wrong;

“So much has happened in last few weeks and I haven't taken it all on board yet. Give me a few days.” is his response to questions on his future;

“It is unbelievable what this team has achieved.” he insists;

“Every one of them has worked so hard, I just can't find words for it.”

It’s not clear what Scolari’s future holds either, but the Brazilian is satisfied that his team has made a more positive impact on the tournament than many English tabloids might suggest;

“I feel satisfied and glad with the way things have turned out overall. At the end, even by ending on a defeat, we're still one of the best four teams in the world.” he points out.

Figo confirms his second international retirement at the end of proceedings, quickly joined by Paris St.Germain striker Pauleta;

“It is hard for me to end my international career in this way. I did everything I could and the team gave their all.” offers Figo, declining to comment on rumours of any pre-game row between he and Scolari;

“This is the saddest day of my career. Playing for this team, scoring for this team was what I most loved doing but my time has come.” chips in Pauleta, who is nothing if not honest.

And so it’s all over. After 64 games and more cards than Clintons and Hallmark combined the World Cup reaches its climax in yet more dramatic and controversial circumstances.

Italy and France clash in Berlin on July 9 for the honour of being crowned the 2006 world champions, and though the encounter is not quite a classic, the two serve up an entertaining contest with a shocking, baffling twist.

It’s Zinedine Zidane’s last ever professional game, and his is the name that will be forever etched in the memory whenever this final is re-lived. It starts well enough for the former Juventus and Real Madrid maestro, as he effortlessly and almost arrogantly chips France into a seventh minute lead from the penalty spot. What would turn out to be a rare burst into the Italian penalty area from Florent Malouda is ended when Marco Materazzi (who also enjoys an eventful evening) considers the possibility of making a challenge, thinks better of it but is penalised nonetheless by Rooney-removing referee Horacio Elizondo.

Zidane’s casual but supremely confident spot-kick glances the underside of the crossbar before dropping down over Gianluigi Buffon’s goal-line to put the French one up. Seemingly determined to make up for the appalling error of being in the vicinity of Malouda at an inopportune moment, former Everton defender Materazzi immediately sets about making amends. From Andrea Pirlo’s 19th minute corner kick (which may or may not have curled out of play) Materazzi climbs highest above Patrick Vieira to power in a headed equaliser.

Confusion reigns in the French back four at set-pieces, with Materazzi again going close with a header before Luca Toni sees his effort bounce off Fabien Barthez’s crossbar. The Fiorentina marksman thinks he has won it in the second half, but his header is ruled out for offside by the Argentine officials. Thierry Henry and Malouda have chances for France, but it is not until extra-time that Franck Ribery wastes their best opportunity. Cutting inside from the left Ribery pokes narrowly wide of Buffon’s left-hand post as the French gain the ascendancy.

That is until another intervention from Zidane. With 10 minutes left before the theatre of another penalty shoot-out, the 1998 World Cup winner suffers a brain explosion. A seemingly good natured discussion with Materazzi turns nasty, with Zidane reacting to the Italian’s words with an inexplicable and quite outrageous head-butt to the chest. Stranger still, only the Italians seem to have noticed until some considerable time later when amid the kind of protestations he experienced from Cristiano Ronaldo et al in Gelsenkirchen, Elizondo consults an assistant, fiddles with his ear-piece and brandishes the red card in the face of the disgraced Zidane.

With Vieira already off injured and Henry by then substituted by coach Raymond Domenech the game fizzles out towards the inevitable. Even a numerical advantage cannot convince the Italians to risk life and limb with any concerted spell of attacking pressure, and the 12-yard test becomes an unavoidable and somewhat regrettable end to proceedings.

In the event it is a man who plays his football in Italy who gifts the Azzuri the trophy, Juventus star David Trezeguet’s penalty kick rattling the crossbar but not benefiting from the same good fortune as Zidane’s earlier effort. Faultless penalty taking is a very un-Italian trait, yet Pirlo, Matterazi (him again), Daniele De Rossi, Allesandro Del Piero and Fabio Grosso all strike near-perfect efforts past the helpless Barthez to seal Italy’s fourth world title;

“This is the most satisfying moment of my life.” gushes triumphant Italy boss Marcello Lippi;

“I've had the fortune to win the Champions League and lots of Serie A titles, but I've never felt anything like this.” he adds.

Pointing a finger firmly in the direction of Materazzi, an emotional Domenech defends the indefensible;

“Materrazzi is the man of the match, not Andrea Pirlo.” he suggests;

“When one has to put up with what Zidane had to and the referee doesn't do anything, one understands. You can't excuse it, but you can understand it.”

Like the rest of us, Domenech doesn’t quite know exactly what it is that Zidane has to ‘put up with’ from Materazzi, but speculates on it all the same;

“Something must have happened but I don't know what. I don't think he decided out of the blue to headbutt him, that he wanted to leave the pitch, something must have happened. I am deeply disappointed. We deserved the title based over the whole match.” he concludes.

By Stephen Orford
13 July 2006
He was once considered England's most promising player yet, at just 20, Cherno Samba now finds himself struggling to find a team. This week he has been on a trial at Bristol City looking to resurrect the career that promised so much when he was barely in his teens but has so far delivered very little.

When Arsenal signed 16 year old Jermaine Pennant for £2 million in 1998, the other big clubs were initially amazed by the sum involved for such a young player and then decided that they needed to do likewise. The rush was on to find the next big thing and Samba, with 132 goals in 32 games, was quickly identified as a potential star.

The offers flooded in: Liverpool were willing to pay Millwall £1.5 million, Manchester United £500,000 more than that. It was a crazy situation for a player just turned 14 who suddenly found himself being treated like one of the game’s big stars.

Eventually, having toured all the interested clubs, he decided to move to Liverpool and that is where the problems began. The two clubs blamed each other but Millwall's reluctance to set a price was matched by Liverpool's refusal to go to a tribunal where the outcome could have reserved them with a nasty surprise. Ultimately they decided to pull out of the deal and Samba found himself back at Millwall. It was a devastating blow.

He would later admit that the aborted transfer move hit him hard. “Whether you are 10, 15 or 38, when a move to big club falls through, you get low. I started to question myself and there were times I tried to quit football. At 14 I played for the under-17s. I was still playing for the under-17s when I was 17, which means I didn't improve my football.”

Whatever the reason, his game never really picked up despite representing England at all youth levels expect Under 21s. Upon turning 19, Millwall decided not to extend the professional contract that they had agreed to when Samba was still 14. Unsuccesful trials at Coventry, Leeds and West Bromwich Albion followed as the harsh reality of football started to hit home.

Salvation came from Spain where Cadiz decided to give this young Englishman a chance. A year on, however, and Samba is once more looking for a club. He’s spent a week at Bristol City with all senior English and Scottish clubs being informed of his availability.

For the kid who was once touted as a star, it is a depressing state of affairs. It is also a stark warning to all the wonder-kids out there.

At least Samba does have the consolation of having become a legend as one of the stars on the Championship Manager football management simulation game.

Paul Grech
20 July 2006

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