Sunday, June 06, 2010

South Africa 2010

Well, we're one week away from the mildly interesting but on the whole, mostly risible spectacle that is the football World Cup. There will be some good, possibly wonderful football - I really hope so. There will certainly also be a lot of average or poor football as well. I'm mostly indifferent to the game but can appreciate the skill and pleasure it can bring. However off the pitch - and very often on - the situation is becoming faintly ridiculous and often rather unpleasant.

Teams rarely lose gracefully. Very few coaches will state in the post-match interview that they were beaten by a better opposition. They will usually complain that the referee made a bad decision or that an opposing player cheated to score a crucial goal. Being a bad loser is rarely considered unsporting. It is expected.

It's a cliche that football can bring out the best in people. A little bit of patriotism is good but this can easily descend into jingoism, xenophobia and simmering, ill-informed resentment.

England have a few teams we traditionally consider our greatest rivals. The French are traditionally disliked, often for no other reason I can fathom other than they are French. We consider we saved them in two World Wars (singlehandedly you might believe if you read some of the rhetoric written in the popular press) and some people seem to expect them to therefore simply roll over and let us win. Some will claim a lack of fighting spirit is an inherently flawed trait of the French national character. This is in direct contradiction to the fact that France is the number one holiday destination for the English and for the three years and eleven months out of every four years that do not involve a World Cup we secretly admire the French for their nonchalance, indifference to authority and spectacularly good food and wine.

We consider Germany our greatest rival. Germans are invariably portrayed as unemotional automatons who play the game with ruthless efficiency. We consider that having beaten them in two World Wars (singlehandedly again) that it is our right to beat them at football. Interestingly, Germany are indifferent to matches against the English and usually somewhat surprised by the degree of emotion the English invest in a fixture against them. Their true rivals are the Dutch.

Argentina are particularly disliked. A war with Argentina (are you noticing a theme here?) in 1982 in which we drove a mostly poorly-equipped and demoralised conscript army out of The Falkland Islands means we now consider the Argentinian people and players mere pawns, manipulated by an inherently corrupt state. They are not and we are the fools for ever imagining this to be true. We played Argentina in 1986 and as a nation, we still resent a goal scored by one of their players in which he illegally manhandled the ball into our goal. This goal is replayed on television whenever Argentina is mentioned even if the subject is not football as if we want to imply that foul play is endemic in the Argentinian psyche. If one of our players had done the same thing to Argentina he would have been feted as a national hero. We lost again to Argentina in 1998. David Beckham was personally blamed for the defeat when he was sent off for retaliating against a foul on him. It was a harsh sending off resulting in some particularly nasty behaviour directed at the referee, the Argentinians and also Beckham whose effigy was hanged in public. To his credit, Beckham came back the following season and went on to become a hero for club and country and for that he should be admired. He could easily have just walked away but he was determined to prove he was a stronger man than many would wish to portray him.

Invaribly, because the press whip up an emotional and sometimes worryingly jingoistic fury, whenever we meet any of the above teams we lose against them. Anger and barely concealed hatred get the better of everybody and whilst passion and emotion are important in football, an excess of these usually produces poor football and the wrong result. We lose significant matches because of the ridiculous national pride we invest in them and rarely win them because we believe we can play better football.

By far the most ridiculous and contrived spectacle you will see in this World Cup is the sight of grown men weeping at the outcome of a fixture. If a team is defeated having reached a significant stage (usually any match beyond half way through the competition) their players will be expected to weep openly on the pitch after the final whistle blows. The supporters expect this or they will consider the players did not care enough about the outcome. The players oblige because fundamentally they are performers, it is expected of them, and they know a few crocodile tears now will enhance their reputation on their return.

The cameras will also scour the terraces for evidences of weeping supporters. Ever since the death of Diana, melodramatic and over-emotional displays of collective grief have become commonplace. Since genuinely distressing events are thankfully rare, major football matches are now used as a barometer of the national mood. Invariably politicians get involved as well.

This time the English team has an Italian coach. He seems a mostly unflappable, enormously sensible and pragmatic individual. His monosyllabic post-match pronouncements are beautifully concise, mostly due to his poor English vocabularly. This is refreshing in a game that is ridiculoulsy over-analysed. I hope, despite his limited lexicon, that he motivates the team to believe they're playing a game of football and not out there to prove anything other than that. This has been the downfall of previous English born coaches who believed football to be a metaphor for national pride and not just about simple, good, honest sporting endeavour.

I hope England do well in the World Cup. I hope we win. But it's only 22 men running around on a field playing a game. Nothing more, nothing less. It's about time a few people realised that.

Cricket is far more important.


Terra Shield said...

The World Cup is the only part of football that excites me. May the best team win!

King of Scurf said...

Terra: May the best team win - my sentiments exactly.

I now also have a financial interest in Mexico finishing in the top 3 as I drew them in the office sweepstake. Holy frijoles!

jefri said...