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Thursday, 24 June 2004

877: EURO 2004: No conspiracy betwe

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by : Stephen Orford

There was no second gunman on the grassy knoll. The British Intelligence services were nowhere near Portugal. No brown envelopes were found in Porto, nor was there any sign of Don King and his crazy barnet. This being the case, how can the idea be entertained that last night's 2-2 draw (June 22) between Denmark and Sweden was somehow pre-arranged in order to eliminate Italy from Euro 2004?

The vagaries of UEFA's rules on qualification from the opening phase groups dictated that a high-scoring draw between 'The Scandinavian Two' would see Italy flying home regardless of their own result against already eliminated Bulgaria in Guimaraes. With no positive result achieved in games between Italy, Denmark and Sweden throughout the group it all came down to the number of goals scored between those three in their head-to-head matches. Matches against Bulgaria then became irrelevant to all intents and purposes, meaning that any score draw higher than the 1-1 achieved by Italy against Sweden would see both Nordic Neighbours through to the quarter finals at Italy's expense.

With only two minutes to go of a full-blooded encounter an horrific error by Danish goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen provided the opportunity for Mattias Jonsson to make Italy's nightmare a reality. That they scored an ultimately pointless winner only seconds later against Bulgaria through Cassano served only to deepen their depression. Cassano's facial expression as his celebrations were savagely cut-short by squad members relaying the bad news may yet become one of the enduring images of European Championship history. In fairness, Cassano was one of the less guilty Italians, having emerged as one of the brightest stars in their ranks in deputising for the disgraced Francesco Totti. However, even he could not save his nation from their fate. Cue the endless bleating and quite disgraceful accusations that have followed today (June 23).

Leading the furore of disapproval is the ridiculously named Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. Far from feeling sympathy with his Danish shot-stopping counterpart Sorensen, Buffon chose instead to declare that the 2-2 draw 'makes you wonder', further suggesting that he was 'embarrassed, not for myself but for them'. This is a suggestion which is so absurd that is almost leading me to question why I have taken it upon myself to pen this piece at all. If all goalkeeping errors were treated in this manner then poor old David James would spend much of his life embroiled in Bruce Grobbelaar-style court cases. That he is not is down to the simple fact of life that mistakes happen. Anybody who, as I did, witnessed the whole ninety minutes of the Denmark v Sweden match will find no reason to question the result, such was the passion and commitment with which the game was played. Both sides appeared desperate to beat their near Neighbours, thus claiming the group winners slot for the quarter finals. In the event, that honour went to Sweden while Denmark face a tricky quarter final against in-form Czech Republic. The idea that they would agree to pre-arrange that fate is too daft to laugh at.

In truth, the Italians have failed to live up their billing throughout the tournament. A toothless performance in their opener against Denmark was followed by failure to kill off the Swedes. It is here that the Italians should begin their inquest, rather than investigating the possibility of quite impossible match-fixing elsewhere. It all went wrong from the moment Totti chose to deposit his saliva in the direction of Denmark's Christian Poulsen, thus earning himself a three-match ban. That we will not see him again in Euro 2004 has to be one of the finest examples of footballing karma in recent times. At a time when UEFA were not prepared to make an example of him, events have taken their course to prevent him from re-appearing. It would have been simply a travesty had he been able to return to the Italian ranks and provide a moment of skill to take his team to the title.

In addition to Totti's failures, Christian Vieri has fared almost as badly. His repeated insistence on missing the target with free headers led to criticism from the Italian press even before the final group game against Bulgaria. This in turn led to reports of a row between the Inter striker and conspiracy theorist Buffon. All of which caused Vieri to get extremely steamed up, telling anybody who was prepared to listen that he would not be talking to the Italian press again. How long that promise will last is open to question, but he may not be around the national team for much longer anyway. In the overhaul that will undoubtedly follow another national disaster, Vieri may well be one star with whom Italy decide they can now do without. His form against Bulgaria hardly improved when, brought on as a substitute, he missed yet another headed opportunity.

He always wanted to open the bowling for Australia anyway.

Stephen Orford

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