Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Like hundreds of millions of others, my activities in the last few weeks have revolved around the scheduling of the matches in the 2010 World Cup, and after a dreadfully slow start it’s turned into a rather fine competition; the last eight include a whole bunch of really good teams and I’m looking forward to the remaining seven games. The Saffers have done a great job – lovely stadia, brilliant TV coverage , especially some of the stills and close-ups, and the best ever World Cup theme tune bar none. And I’d much rather the vuvuzelas than that stupid Mexican wave any day.

As for England, well, my patriotism is usually of the lukewarm variety, but I turned out with hope in my heart. Ten minutes in, we were 1-0 up against the USA after a slick move and a neat finish and things were looking rosy. Maybe not as rosy as The Paper That Supported Our Boys would have had us believe with this front page after the draw for the group was made:

But still pretty good. Then came that pub-team-goalkeeper-with-a-particularly-bad-hangover howler from poor Robert Green and all of a sudden things weren’t looking so hot after all. Next up was the wretched nil-nil draw with Algeria, where our ‘golden generation’ (an appellation that seems to reflect their grotesque earnings rather than their track record) turned in a performance that would have had the average junior school sports teacher weeping in frustration, followed by the get-out-of-jail result against mighty Slovenia that meant we staggered out of the group and in which we showed vague hints of the form in the qualifiers that had got us to the finals and had had the redtops bigging up our chances goodstyle.

Enter Deutschland. The old enemy. And also the first genuinely good side we’d faced. Two-nil down after barely half an hour and staring disaster in the face, then we got one back from a set-piece and then this:

Quite how the officials failed to spot that one (apparently they’ve been calling them ‘Wembley goals’ in Germany for over forty years now – can’t think why) has been one of the biggest talking points of the last few days. But it’s hardly a unique incident: the perfectly good winner the US scored against Slovenia that was disallowed for offside, the way Brazil’s Luis Fabiano handled the ball not once but twice to set himself up for his second against Côte d’Ivoire, and the ‘goal’ by two-yards-offside Carlos Tevez that started Argentina off on their route to victory against a Mexican team that had shaded them up to that point are perhaps the three that struck me most. This kind of incompetence is just ludicrous at this level of the world’s most popular sport and the howls of protest from the aggrieved parties are understandable.

It’s not as if the technology doesn’t exist or would be expensive or hard to install – it’s already there, at all sorts of levels of the game, and certainly at a championship like this, where the number of camera angles the South African TV people have been able to deploy for juicy morsels of the action has been quite staggering. And it’s not as if other sports don’t take advantage of it – to name but three, ice hockey, cricket, and tennis have all adapted to the modern world and what it can offer when it comes to dodgy calls. As for football, well, Sepp Blatter said as recently as April that there was no way they were going to go down that road, but I see from the press today that now he’s backtracking on his Luddite commitment to no technology, so let’s watch this space and see what happens.

But let’s be honest. No technology in the world would have prevented England from getting thrashed on Sunday, for the simple reason that they weren’t very good on the day and, whatever the tabloids might say, aren’t very good anyway. We may have invented the game, but the idea that the way we do it is the genuine article and Johnny Foreigner’s efforts are not quite the way it should be played is as horribly outdated as cricket dividing the Gentlemen from the Players. Just compare Germany, with their speed, movement, fluidity, teamwork, and ability to surge upfield and strip a defence bare, with England: what do we have?

A lot of people seem happy to dump the blame on the guy my mate Mark in Budapest describes as ‘the strict headmaster on the touchline’, the six-million-quid-a-year man Fabio Capello, and as the coach of course he has to take at least some of the blame. Our rigid formation; a ponderous defence; a midfield that showed little or no creativity; a toothless attack; playing a big butch target man (and how many teams at this level use one of those, for God’s sake?) who may be a lovely guy but who has a tendency, to paraphrase Frank Worthington, to trap the ball further than a lot of other players can kick it; all these can be laid at his door to some extent, I suppose. But there are other things I don’t think can.

A 100-hundred-miles-an-hour approach to the game that has always valued endeavour and commitment and ‘putting in a shift’ more than technical ability or wit or flair or subtlety; the frequent inability to find a team-mate with the simplest of passes; no notion of the value of keeping possession, and no patience with the ball, epitomised by the tendency to hoof it aimlessly upfield (the Gary Neville, as it’s called in the trade) rather than actually thinking about what to do with it; the English approach, in other words. Put it all together with unpredictable errors like Green’s and the lack of form shown by some key players and it’s not exactly a formula for success. More Dad’s Army than Cool Britannia, I fear.

Wayne Rooney has taken quite a bit of stick, and he certainly bore no resemblance to the player who has been terrorising Prem defences these last few seasons. But he’s far from alone in that. Between them Rooney, Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres, the King of Petulance aka Cristiano Ronaldo, and even the wonderful Lionel Messi had only scored a total of two goals by the time the quarter-finalists were known. The odds you could have got on that before the tournament would surely have been astronomical.

But at least there were others on whose shoulders the burden of expectation was even heavier than on England and who disappointed their people even more cruelly. The holders, Italy, for one, who needed to beat Slovakia to get out of their group and ended up losing in a welter of tears; now they really were Dad’s Army. But pride of place must go to les Bleus, with one point, enough skulduggery in the camp to build a year’s worth of soap operas around, and the wrath of a nation awaiting them on their ignominious return. Karma coming home to roost if ever there was; after that shameful handball incident against Ireland that got them there in the first place, they deserved nothing better. I wonder just what the Irish word for schadenfreude is?