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Euro-less summer adds to England misery

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LONDON – There will be no flags hanging from the windows of houses, cars and office buildings this time. No soccer anthems blaring out of stereos and no patriotic punters in Trafalgar Square.

Because there is no England at the European Championships.

The land that codified the game into a structured format – and boasts the most competitive league on the planet and is widely regarded as the home of soccer – failed to do enough to step forward as one of the best 16 teams in its own continent this summer.

For most of the millionaire players of the England national team, it means June can be spent basking in the sunshine in a luxury holiday destination, albeit with embarrassment and regret.

"I definitely won't be in Austria or Switzerland," England and Manchester United midfielder Owen Hargreaves said of Euro 2008's host countries. "And I don't think I will watch it … I don't think I'll get a lot of satisfaction from that, knowing we should probably be there."

For the millions of supporters for whom immersion into jingoistic soccer mania has become a biennial rite of passage, there is

emptiness. And, more crucially, there is no distraction for a nation buckling under the weight of severe financial and social problems.

England knows how to embrace a major football tournament like few other countries, with thousands partying in streets near iconic landmarks in London and other major cities during past championships.

The failure to qualify for the event in Austria and Switzerland cost manager Steve McClaren his job and robbed a nation of its primary summer focal point. Of course, this is not the first time England has missed out on competing on the big stage, but it breaks a run of six consecutive Euro championships and World Cups. At least at the 1994 World Cup, there was the Republic of Ireland's plucky run through the group phase for English fans to take an interest.

This time, however, there is nothing but extra time to reflect on miserable issues, like the credit crunch that has sent property prices plummeting across Britain and left many in danger of losing their homes. To compound problems, the cost of living is soaring, with gas reaching an all-time high of an incredible $9.50 per gallon.

Stories of fiscal woes are regularly bumped off the top of news bulletins, though, by a drastic increase in knife-related crime among teenagers, or the increasingly doomed tenure of failing Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

If England ever needed soccer success to feel good about itself again, that time is now. But it won't happen. A dismal qualifying campaign under the dreary leadership of McClaren ended in a home defeat to Croatia last November.

As a result, the English audience for Euro 2008 will be almost exclusively soccer fans. Those who are usually drawn in by the nationalistic fervor will find something else to do this time.

"England comes to a standstill during major tournaments," said leading soccer journalist Daivd Hytner of the Guardian newspaper. "This one will be more for the purists."

One national newspaper ran a poll asking who England fans should support. The results favored Poland, presumably because of the estimated one million Poles who have come to the UK in search of better-paid work since that country's admittance to the European Union.

But nothing that the Poles, or the England cricket team, or tennis player Andy Murray at Wimbledon, or Formula One motor racing points leader Lewis Hamilton can do will match the interest and attention that would have greeted an England campaign at Euro 2008.

"As a fan, I am almost looking forward to it more," said James Ditton of London. "Normally at this time we are stressing about David Beckham's foot injury or Wayne Rooney's ankle. Now it is just about the football, although it is still agonizing that we are not involved."

That agony will last until September, when 2010 World Cup qualifying starts and new England boss Fabio Capello has a chance to restore morale.

His task is mighty: to convince an under-performing group of players of their capacity for greatness, and to deliver long-awaited success to a nation that craves it.

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