Well that’s that for another four years; the World Cup is over and bang on cue, two days later, here are my topical thoughts. This time around the end of the tournament has the added bonus that Charles Clarke has promised to shut the fuck up from now on, so that in itself is cause for celebration (Update: he’s just broken his word). I successfully fought the virtually non-existent urge to regularly issue predictions and comments on the games as they have gone on and rightly so; if I had then I would surely have been proved wrong at every turn. Now, however, I can fraudulently claim that I always thought Italy would edge it due to their solid defence, and you can’t prove a thing.
Overall I think it has been a pretty average tournament, with few games that really grabbed the attention, but I am glad for Italy. Of course I wanted England to win (though I could never see that happening) and I have also always had a bit of a soft spot for Spain (being a Hispanophile in general and out of sympathy for their perennially underachieving football team in particular); but with both those sides predictably out of the running I wanted the Italians to do it, primarily because I was in Sorrento four years ago when they got knocked out of the 2002 World Cup and I will never forget the eerie silence when we drew into town, how all the television channels had this air of mourning akin to a state funeral. I would have loved to have been back there on Sunday to judge the difference.
I felt very lucky watching England this tournament, I must say; while the commentators and summarisers were scratching their heads wondering where a good performance would come from, I just sat back watching what I had always expected would happen unfold in front of my eyes. I really feel sorry for all those optimists who thought we stood a chance. We didn’t play well simply because we aren’t very good. I know Sven gets a lot of stick, and rightly so, but listening to some you would imagine that he alone has held back the best team in the world. I’m not denying that we could perhaps play better under a different manager, but not by much.
Part of this is down to how we continually exaggerate how good our players are. The summarisers will say that there aren’t many players from other teams that they would want in the England side, but can you imagine many England players that other nations would want? This is symbolised best in “Fanny” Lampard, one of the best players in the world apparently, certainly one of our stars. Everyone seems to agree that he has had a poor tournament but I’m not so sure; I’ve never thought he was that good anyway. Surely the most over rated England player since David Platt, take away his goals (as it appears someone did; the only way he would trouble the scoreboard is if it was positioned directly behind the goal) and he contributes almost nothing to the side.
Yes, we could win the World Cup one day, we prove each competition that we can consistently finish in the top eight (ie. we are equivalent to a Bolton or Blackburn in premiership terms), and we could fluke onwards; if we had performed only badly in the penalties, as opposed to abysmally, then it is conceivable that we could have reached the semis since Portugal missed two of their spot kicks. However, the fact that we could fluke a semi final appearance is not the same as this misguided belief that we should do better, and I have no faith, based upon the comments of the pundits, that a sense of realism will arrive on the scene anytime soon.
“England expect better than the Quarter-Finals” I kept hearing it said, but we have rarely been further, only once on foreign soil. There have been plenty of occasions when we haven’t qualified for the finals at all (eg. the seventies). Then there is the bizarre paradox that when other teams played badly some pundits would announce that it revealed the team simply didn’t have what it takes to win the World Cup, but when England played badly the same pundits would announce that it is irrelevant because “we know we can play better and will come good in the end”. Based on what?
And even when we did get knocked out, after never playing well, we had a ready made scapegoat in “Chico” Ronaldo, who cruelly spoke to the referee and so “got Rooney sent off”; as if players never crowd round the referee in England. Now don’t get me wrong, Ronaldo is a little shit, but Rooney was right to get sent off; if not for the stamp then for stupidly pushing Ronaldo out of the way. It is right to hate Ronaldo, but not to blame him for England’s exit right on schedule. If Ronaldo wasn’t being blamed then of course it was Sven for playing Rooney up front on his own; but many pundits on television, Lee Dixon among them, had hardly a bad word to say about that system after the Ecuador game; the talk was all about how England seemed to have found a formation that they liked and that worked, while I just shook my head, replayed the images in my head of Rooney stranded upfront without any support, and wondered if the experts had seen the same game that I had.
The punditry in general has been entertaining enough, good value and all, but full of the same old hypocrisies and clichés. When the group stages ended there was the typical “great, the knockout round starts here”, “the last 16 is where the good matches get played”, despite the fact that since USA ’94 the group stages have always been better, when three points for a win means it is worth going for victory while in the latter games it seems more important just to avoid defeat. Then there were the complaints about foreigners diving, as if we never see such things in the premiership (although I admit Henry surprised me when he dived against Spain; I can’t imagine he would have been so blatant for Arsenal). But I did find it bizarre to see Alan Shearer complaining about underhand play and players pressuring the referee; there was never a corner taken where he wouldn’t give an opponent a handy shove, and he was certainly never shy about giving the referee the benefit of his experience. As for Alan Ball’s appearances on Match of the Day as a summariser, as someone who has suffered at his hands I think the less said about his expert analysis the better.
But if the punditry has been poor the commentary has been even worse. I can’t think of a good commentator on BBC and ITV at the moment (TV that is: BBC’s FiveLive coverage is fine). I need not waste my time explaining Motty’s failings, but my new bete noir is Guy Mowbray, for serial dreadfulness but particularly for his appalling “Brisbane, Sydney Melbourne, Perth…they’re all wild about Harry” line when Mr Kewell scored against Croatia. I am indebted to Peter Crouch, however, for refusing to do his robotic dance when he scored against Trinidad And Tobago; not that it stopped Clive Tyldesely from saying “he’s scoring with robotic regularity”, but at least it made Clive look even dafter than he otherwise would have done. Sepp Blatter seems to stick his nose into most other aspects of the sport; should we petition him to introduce minimum standards for commentators?
But now thoughts turn to the domestic season, and my decision not to renew my season ticket is looking inspired. Up until Christmas only four City home games remain unchanged for telly (yet), and of those four I am at work for two of them. Can we stop this charade of publishing the fixtures and then waiting for Sky to piss about with them? Why not draft them, hand a copy to Sky, let them get to work and then publish them so we drones can view them for the first time with all the changes already having taken place. As it stands, when the fixtures are first released the only correct reaction is to shrug your shoulders, say “whatever, let’s see” and then to wait a few weeks to see what turns up.
And with Sven having finally gone it is also time to look forward to the exiting era of Steve McClaren, England Head Coach, as choreographed by his publicist. Funny though; looking back at my first full post on this blog I see that I talked then about the FA, the England manager and some bloke called Max Clifford. The more things change…
PostScript: No World Cup post would be complete without a “man of the tournament” award; and I have to go for Graham Poll. Not just because he booked a Croatian player three times in the game against Australia, but also for missing two blatant penalties in that game, making a host of other bad decisions and completely losing the plot in the most entertaining fashion possible. Cheers, Graham.