Sunday 7 September ~
You’ll know already that that English football is sleazy. We’re now getting almost daily confirmation that this impression has spread around Europe too. That term was attributed today to Vlatko Markovic, president of the Croatia FA, in response to reports linking his national coach Slaven Bilic with the managerial vacancy at West Ham. Bilic is apparently on a four-man shortlist, Roberto Donadoni and Gianfranco Zola having already been interviewed, with Michael Laudrup dropping on Monday to declare his affection for east London, Bobby Moore and the West Ham way. The two Italians might benefit from the fact that their compatriot Gianluca Nani is the club’s sporting director but Bilic the former Hammer would clearly be the popular choice.
The managerless Hammers continue to add to their squad – they have signed three out-of-contract players since the transfer window closed with Uruguayan full-back Walter Lopez the latest arrival – which does rather bear out Alan Curbishley’s complaint that transfer dealings were out of his hands. But caretaker boss Kevin Keen has stressed that Lopez is a “West Ham-type player” which should settle all supporters’ concerns. Meanwhile, club director Mike Lee is hoping to talk to Bilic before Wednesday’s international match: “We understand that he has to have a focus on the England game, but I think we do want to be able to make progress.” If, as has been mooted, Bilic says he can’t consider the job until January then the shortlist will be cut to three. Hence Vlatko Markovic’s sleaze outburst: “This is another dirty trick by the English. They obviously want to cause trouble for us before we play.”
While there is no likelihood of West Ham seeking to destabilise Croatian plans in anyone’s interest other than their own, there is no doubt that Bilic’s departure might prove a boon to England, assuming that Croatia’s trip to Wembley in 2009 will still be of relevance in the group. England did the bare minimum in beating Andorra yesterday – indeed the latter’s coach, David Rodrigo, cheekily suggested that he could have secured a bigger win had he swapped places with Fabio Capello – and the English press seem to be anticipating, in some cases relishing, another defeat in Zagreb.
The team that plays on Wednesday will be substantially different to the one that laboured to score twice against part-timers yesterday, but whoever plays seems just as likely to be afflicted by the collective crisis in confidence that has gripped the squad. John Terry has attempted a half-hearted rallying cry, telling the Sun that he has “revenge” in mind: “We’ve got the disappointments of losing there and losing to them at Wembley and that’s in the back of our minds.” But such thoughts are of course just as likely to inhibit the team as inspire them. Fabio Capello risked a joke at his post-match press conference: “I will be happy if Croatia play like Andorra. But I don’t think that is going to happen.” If anyone in his audience found that funny they kept it to themselves.