Countdown to EURO 2004 – 162 days to go!


(A not too serious look at the football year ahead)

January’s top-notch club tournament, played at the Algarve Stadium and involving Europe’s crème-de-la-crème is cancelled due to torrential rain. A drainage system has somehow been overlooked during the hasty construction phase of the Algarve’s new Euro 2004 venue, turning it into a smaller version of the Alqueva reservoir.

Thankfully, Portimão’s water polo team, second in the national championships, volunteers to entertain the crowds and are met by unpaid footballers from Farense, who thought they’d turn up just in case. The Mayors of Loulé and Faro assure the gathered press that February’s match between England and Portugal will go ahead, while studiously avoiding eye contact.

February 18 is greeted by bright sunshine and the Algarve stadium’s waterlogged pitch has been restored at great expense.England has arrived, without Owen (hamstring), Ferdinand (drug-related suspension) and Beckham, who Real Madrid would not release ahead of their Champions League game with Bayern Munich. Hargreaves and the entire Manchester United contingent are missing for the same reason.

A full-strength Portugal side (Figo did get permission from Real to play) wins 8-1 in front of an ecstatic crowd of 750 ardent fans. English supporters are not present, as the full force of the country’s security machine had descended upon hapless residents attempting to reach the match.The 24-hour courts in Loulé and Faro go into action for the first time since the Revolution, as Portugal launches its ‘Welcome to Portugal’ campaign at the International Travel Fair in Berlin.

Early March’s Champions League matches see the surprise elimination of Manchester United and Real Madrid by FC Porto and Bayern Munich. Both teams decided to rest their stars on the assumption that quarterfinal places were a mere formality. Farense take part in the Women’s Mini-World Cup in the Algarve and finish up with the wooden spoon. The players claimed exhaustion due to having to walk to matches as a result of still not having been paid since last year.

In April, Latvia arrive in the Algarve for a once-in-a-lifetime holiday prior to June’s kick-off. They cite Denmark’s similar preparation for the 1992 Championships in Sweden as their inspiration and are joined on the beaches by Farense chanting: “I wanna, I wanna ….” England’s league season has been curtailed to give the players a rest before Euro 2004. Chelsea have won the League and FA Cups and are a massive 24 points clear in the Premiership. Roman Abramovich targets Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo and any other player to emerge from the European Championships for the summer’s transfer frenzy.

In May, Farense decide to write to the Chelsea owner, as relegation to the district leagues looms, but unfortunately can’t get the money for the postage together. FC Porto are crowned champions once more, but are denied the double by Portimonense’s victory in the Cup Final, catapulting the Algarve club into the UEFA Competition. Manchester United is taken over by an American consortium, which plan to introduce gridiron at Old Trafford. Roman Abramovich’s renewed £100m bid for Arsenal’s Thierry Henry is turned down, so the Russian buys the debt-ridden club for £50m instead.

Just before June’s Euro 2004 kick-off in Porto, Portugal revokes the Schengen Agreement and closes its borders to all travelling fans ‘in the interest of public safety’. Hotel occupancy rates in the Algarve are down 100 per cent as the tourism industry experiences its worst summer ever. Portugal only finish third in their group and are eliminated. National television resorts to showing replays of Euro 2000 in France, instead of the scheduled live coverage of the remaining tournament. The Algarve hosts a high-profile quarterfinal between Italy and Holland (Germany failed to win a single group match – a draw against Latvia providing the highlight of their campaign) after two group matches between the likes of Russia and Greece failed to arouse much interest. Italy win 1-0, after the Dutch team spent most of the game arguing, and progress to the final after ending Latvia’s dream in their semi. Their surprise opponents are the Czech Republic.

The final of the Euro 2004 Championships on July 2 in Benfica’s magnificent new Stadium of Light is put back to midnight as Lisbon swelters in unseasonably high temperatures. The unforeseen delay inadvertently foils a kidnap attempt of the entire Italian team by Basque Separatists, who had erroneously assumed Spain had made it to the final. Lack of television coverage was largely responsible for their mistake. An empty Italian team coach was the net result of their endeavours. Once under way, the game is won by the Czechs, thanks to a Rosicky hat trick. The Dortmund player is met by Roman Abramovich wielding an open chequebook as he comes off the pitch.

August’s pre-season merry-go-round has Sven Goran Eriksson resigning from his England post to take over the reins at Chelsea. Manchester United draft the entire US team into their first 11 at their training camp in Florida. Portimonense sign Paul Gascoigne and Mario Jardel, in the hope of finally throwing down a serious promotion challenge in the forthcoming season.

President Sintra resigns in mid-September after Portimão lose their third successive home game. Gascoigne is seen at 3am in an Albufeira nightspot drinking with Farense; Mario Jardel is in Brazil. In England, Leeds is saved by a Chinese consortium, which is planning to introduce more Asian players to the Premiership. Amid match-fixing allegations, Arsenal and Chelsea share a 6-6 draw, both teams heading up the league.

The managerial carousel starts to spin in October. Ex-Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri takes over the England hot seat and promises World Cup qualification ‘even without Abramovich’s millions’. Gerard Houllier at Liverpool and Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United both resign ‘for health reasons’. The Anfield boardroom appoints Emlyn Hughes as Houllier’s successor and Martin O’Neill takes over at Old Trafford. US wonderkid, 14-year-old Adu, transferred from Washington for £115m, scores on his debut for the Reds against newly promoted Wigan Athletic.

In November, Farense finally give up the struggle as the club disbands. Jardel is sighted in Praia da Rocha raising hopes that Portimonense can improve on their ninth place in the league. The Stadium of the Algarve is sold off to a leisure company, who plan to turn it into an Aquapark. FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, decides to change football’s 90-minute playing period into four quarters instead of two halves to allow for more television advertising. The 2010 World Cup is awarded to Tunisia.

For the first time in FIFA’s 101-year history, four players from the same club fill the first four places in the voting for ‘World Footballer of the Year’. The Chelsea quartet of Zidane, Henry, Ronaldo and Beckham celebrate in style and promise more magic for 2005. The euphoria is overshadowed by a UEFA crisis meeting convened to discuss the re-introduction of the ‘two foreign player limit’ for European club sides following the overturn of the Bosman ruling.

Happy Sporting New Year!

A Question of Football: Answer to last week’s question – Name the last three English players to play for Real Madrid.

David Beckham, Steve McManaman and Laurie Cunningham

A Question of Sport: Answer to last week’s question – Name Britain’s three 100m Olympic gold medallists.

Harold Abrahams, Alan Wells and Linford Christie