By Jay Mwamba
Northern Ireland suffered a crushing 3-0 defeat by Cup holders Germany in their Euro 2000 qualifier in Belfast last Saturday, on a weekend overshadowed by the cancellation of all the fixtures in Ireland’s group because of the Kosovo crisis.
UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, postponed the Ireland-Macedonia tie in Skopje, and three other qualifiers involving countries from the former Yugoslavia federation, just hours before NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia and parts of Kosovo began last Wednesday.
The Football Association of Ireland was none too pleased at what it saw as an unnecessary delay in postponing the game because of pending NATO air-strikes in neighboring Kosovo and Yugolosavia. In the end, it took a phone call from Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs, David Andrews, advising Irish nationals against traveling to Macedonia to finally forced UEFA to concede that the game could not go ahead.
The other rescheduled Group 9 matches were the Yugoslavia-Croatia tussle in Belgrade, Yugoslavia-Macedonia, which was scheduled for today, and the Scotland-Bosnia Group 9 encounter in Glasgow last Saturday. All the matches are being rescheduled for the fall, with several September dates and Oct. 9 considered to be likely options.
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Northern Ireland were tipped to keep their 17-year unbeaten run against the ailing Germans going at Windsor Park, but the European champs stunned their hosts with a stirring return to form that virtually shattered the North’s hopes of reaching the finals.
Marco Bode scored twice in the second half to lift Germany to second position in Group 3, before Steve Morrow deflected a Dieter Hamann free-kick (62nd) into the net to complete the North’s misery.
Lawrie McMenemy’s men could salvage some pride today against bottom side Moldova, who lost by 2-0 in Istanbul to group leaders Turkey. Sergen Yalcin and Hakan Sukur were the Turkish scorers. Germany at home to Finland today.
Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes bagged a hat-trick (11th, 23rd, 71st) against Poland to give interim England coach Kevin Keegan a winning start in Group 5. Captain Jerzy Brzeczek (29th) had the lone Polish response in a 3-2 loss that saw the Poles slip from first to third position (6 points).
England moved into second place (7) behind Sweden (9) who blanked Luxembourg 2-0 in Gothenburg on strikes by Celtic United teammates Johan Mjallby (35th) and Henrik Larsson (87th). Today’s fixtures pit Luxembourg at home to Bulgaria and Sweden away to Poland.
Group 1 pace-setters Italy (9) made it three victories in a row with an impressive 2-1 victory over Denmark in Copenhagen. Filippo Inzaghi and Antonio Conte connected, while Ebbe Sand (58th) pulled one back for the Danes, whose qualification chances are now remote.
Belarus, edged 1-0 at home by Sebastian Fournier’s 72nd minute goal for Switzerland, are up next for Italy in Ancona today. Switzerland, meanwhile, entertain Wales.
Another Manchester United striker, Ole Gunnar Solskj’r, came up big for his country at the weekend. Solskj’r struck both goals in Norway’s 2-0 triumph over Greece in Athens, a result that forced Greek coach Anghel Iordanescu to quit.
"Everyone who loses must pay. Now I have to pay," the Romanian-born Iordanescu said. "Our chances of qualifying are now almost nothing."
Norway (7) now lead Group 2 by a point over Latvia, who host the Greeks (5) today. The group’s two other members, Georgia and Slovenia, tied 1-all in Tbilisi. Zaza Dzhanashia (42nd) and Zlatko Zahovic (52nd),. respectively, scored. Slovenia face Albania at home today.
World champs France, sans world player of the year Zinedine Zidane, could only post a goalless tie with Group 4 arch-rivals in Paris. Ukraine maintained its two-point edge over France.
Both sides face less daunting opposition today. The French welcome an Armenian side that was thrashed 2-0 by Russia, while Ukraine take on Iceland — who overwhelmed Andorra 2-0. Artyom Bezrodny (52nd) and Magomed Adiyev (80th) were the Russian marksmen in Yerevan, while Eyjolfur Sverrisson (58th), and Steinar Adolfsson (71st) connected for Iceland.
Young striker Raul Gonzalez banged in four goals against Austria to lead Spain to a 9-0 rout in a Group 6 fixture in Valencia. Ism’l Urzaiz, Fernando Hierro, Fran Gonzalez and Arnold Wetl (own goal) accounted for the other goals as the Spaniards resuscitated their qualification hopes in grand style. Spain could record another cricket score today when they travel to San Marino.
Isr’l beat Cyprus 3-0 in the other group match in Tel Aviv. Tal Banin (11th) and Alon Mizrahi (47th, 53rd) starred.
Portugal were the other big winners at the weekend, trouncing Azerbaijan 7-0 in Guimares to top Group 7 (9). Sa Pinto (28th), Joao Pinto (two) Paulo Madeira (67th) Sergio Conceicao, and Pedro Pauleta (82nd, 83rd) scored.
Portugal are away to shellshocked Liechtenstein today while Azerbaijan tackle second-placed Romania (7), who were held to a goalless tie by 10-man Slovakia in Bucharest. Liechtenstein were on the receiving end of a 5-0 shellacking by Hungary in Budapest on Saturday. Vilmos Sebok had a hat-trick for the Magyars, whose other goals came from Jozsef Sebok and skipper Bela Illes.
And in Group 9, the Czech Republic kept their 100 percent record intact with a 2-0 home romp over Lithuania. Michal Hornak (10th) and Patrik Berger (74th) connected.
The Czechs face a fresh Scottish team in Glasgow today, while Lithuania are at home to Estonia.