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Finals without our boys really hurts like hell.

Byline: Jonathan Pearce

SNIFFY soccer snobs will preach to you that it's great being at a major finals without England.

Apparently we can glory in football at its finest when the boys in the Three Lions shirts are absent.

From the experience of covering 11 tournaments over the last 20 years, I can tell you that's nonsense. Hopefully, the games will be glorious. But it hurts like hell that England aren't here.

I don't miss the baggage. The ballooned hype, the inflated egos, the putrid coverage of wives and girlfriends and the arrogance of the FA entourage - all have blighted recent championships.

But not to have a team here is like Christmas Day without the lunch. It's still fun. It's still exciting. But ultimately there'll be an empty feeling by tea-time.

The FA must see it doesn't happen again. Germany suffer no tales of qualifying woe. Italy are never left blaming refereeing decisions for failing to make it.

Smaller nations than us - Croatia is less than half the size - are matching and bettering our qualifying. It's galling.

At last the National Academy at Burton is out of mothballs. It must be the permanent HQ for the England manager, who could then have a daily hands-on role in developing young players and coaches. We're not producing enough of either.

With school pitches sold off by treacherous governments and parents scared to let their kids play in the streets where knife-law rules, England lacks the fertile ground to nurture footballers of wondrous talent.

Petr Cech (above) isn't the only keeper here who's better than our finest. Where is the conveyor belt of English goalkeepers that was once the envy of the world?

And why can Portugal produce Quaresma, Ronaldo and Simao to thrill us, while the nation that created the game can't find enough home-born bodies to fill its top-flight teams?

How can other nations find goal-grabbers to top the scoring charts of England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain while we can't unearth one to make it into the Premier League's top-eight scorers?

I have a meeting with Fabio Capello on Friday. I hope he can provide the answers. There are, sadly, too many signs that he is already realising the magnitude of his task.

But he will create a side that is gritty and assured enough to qualify well for 2010 and that's a start. For all the flair on display, the team with the most resolute defence and focused team spirit will prevail at Euro 2008, just as Italy did in 2006 and Greece two years before.

For many of you, Germany, the favourites, fit that bill, and my tournament kicks off with the Germans against Poland today. They may never have lost an opening

European Championship finals group match, and Poland may have failed to score in their last five tournament openers, but don't be surprised if there's a shock.

Poland certainly have enough to force a draw. They'll miss the injured Blaszczykowski, but Krzynowek has enough trickery and pace to expose the German full-backs who love to raid forward but leave gaps.

Germany centre-backs Mertesacker and Metzelder have looked shaky in the warm-ups and Ebi Smolarek's movement could cause major problems.

Poland's squad has played almost 250 fewer club games than Germany's this season - in fact, jaded legs could prove to be a factor for all the star-studded sides.

It's only sad that the competition draw has been split into two unbalanced halves. But there are still delicious riddles to be solved. Will Gomes emerge as Germany's new scoring sensation? Will Spurs fans be enchanted by Modric?

Can Ribery finish a fine season with a French flourish? Is there really a rebirth for Del Piero? What if the Dutch or Spanish finally achieve? It's all here. But England aren't.

I don't miss the flag-wavers. But while my brain appreciates the aesthetic quality of it all, my heart is elsewhere - not with the FA or Premier League as they stand now, but where they should be, on fertile fields of football glory.

CAPTION(S):

DAUNTING TASK: Fabio Capello
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 8, 2008
Words:679
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