AS I WRITE this piece, English football has just had a very good week at the expense of the Greeks. To begin with the English national team clinched a point at Old Trafford in their final World Cup qualifier against Greece, which was enough to give them automatic qualification for next summer’s World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea.
Then the team that usually plays at Old Trafford, Manchester United, thumped the Greek club side Olympiakos 2-0 in Athens to move to the top of their group in the European Champions League.
The link to both these results was old (well, not-so-old, actually) ‘Goldenballs’ himself, David Beckham, who scored a last minute equaliser for England with a scintillating 25-yard free-kick and then knocked in Manchester United’s first goal in Athens from all of six yards.
Beckham, who was originally given his nickname by his wife Victoria (otherwise known as ‘Posh Spice’) but is now affectionately referred to as ‘Goldenballs’ throughout England, appears to be finally coming of age.
I must confess that I didn’t use to have any time for him. Not out of jealousy you understand (although anyone could be forgiven for being a little jealous of him, after all he has been gifted with a marvellous footballing talent, is Captain of England, married to a Spice Girl and makes millions doing something he loves), but rather because he typified the new breed of sporting hero, who couldn’t string two proper sentences together, showed little regard for authority and generally set a bad example to young people.
Young Manchester United fans — beginning a lifelong obsession.
However I have to admit that I now have nothing but total respect for a person who just three years ago was nationally vilified as the man responsible for England’s World Cup defeat by Argentina, after he was sent off for utterly reckless retaliation against one of the galloping gauchos. How much he has matured since then and what a wonderfully hard-working, gifted and inspiring captain of England he is now. It makes any English football fan almost dare to dream of winning the World Cup again, especially after the way in which they thrashed Germany 5-1 in Munich in September.
On the Premiership stage it remains to be seen how memorable a season ‘Goldenballs’ and his teammates can make it for Sir Alex Ferguson in his final term as Manchester United’s manager. Ferguson’s stated aim is to win the European Champions League for the second time, following their success in 1999. If they are to achieve this aim they’ll need to wake up goalkeeper Barthez, whose two tragic blunders led to their home defeat to Deportivo recently. And the rest of their defence has been frail in Europe.
They’ve also looked vulnerable in the Premiership this season and currently lie third, three points behind David O’Leary’s Leeds United, who were England’s best-placed Champions League team last season when they reached the semi-finals.
Leeds are looking good this season, especially Robbie Keane, the striker they signed from Inter Milan for £11 million, but they still don’t arouse the same kind of passion outside of their native city that Manchester United do all over the world. So great is this international passion for the Red Devils that they probably have more fans in Malaysia than they do in Manchester and, accordingly, a Manchester United shop has been opened in Kuala Lumpur to service the need for Manchester United shirts, boots, scarves, books and goodness knows what else, amongst Malaysian fans. There’s also a Manchester United shop in Singapore.
The Malaysian Manchester United fervour was further fanned last July when ‘Goldenballs’ and co. undertook a short Southeast Asian tour, visiting Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, and attracting the kind of crowds in KL that the Malaysian national team can only dream about. Other English Premiership teams with strong followings in Malaysia are Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, and they’re all having mixed seasons so far.
Arsenal currently lie second to Leeds in the Premiership, ahead of Manchester United on goal difference, though they’re struggling in Europe having won only one of their Champions League games so far.
Liverpool are also struggling in the Champions League and suffered the ignominy of being knocked out of the Worthington Cup, one of the three trophies they’re defending this season, by Nationwide First Division opponents Grimsby Town. However they’re fairly well placed in the Premiership, currently five points behind Leeds with a game in hand.
Chelsea are also motoring along OK so far, being unbeaten in the Premiership, though they’re managing to draw more games than they’re winning under Claudio Ranieri’s leadership despite striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink having struck (forgive the pun) a rich vein of form with seven goals from just six games. The boys from Stamford Bridge were also sailing through the early rounds of the UEFA Cup, until they came unstuck in Tel Aviv, losing to Haptoed Tel Aviv 2-0, largely because six of their star players were too frightened to travel with the rest of the team to Israel. Given the current situation there, it’s probably understandable, although they would appear to have let down their courageous team-mates who did make the journey. Let’s hope that they can atone for this in the return leg at Stamford Bridge.
But it’s early days yet in the Premiership, though most pundits would expect the eventual 2001/2002 champions to come from those five teams, with possibly a rejuvenated Aston Villa as a dark horse outside bet.
At the other end of football’s toughest league Leicester are really missing manager Martin O’Neill after he left to join Glasgow Celtic towards the end of last season. Firmly rooted to the bottom with just five points they’ve already parted company with his replacement, Peter Taylor. Ipswich, West Ham and Derby are also looking to be in trouble and the relegated teams at the end of the season may well come from those four and perennial strugglers Southampton. But as I said, it’s early days yet.