World Cup final: a victory for football bull***t
The boring Spanish deserved to win, but spare us the moralistic guff about the beautiful game’s triumph over ‘Cloggers’.
It was, the wise men of the BBC pundits’ couch all highmindedly agreed, a Victory for Football. Across the UK media, Spain’s 1-0 win over the Netherlands in the World Cup Final was hailed as a ‘triumph of the Beautiful Game’ over the dirty Dutch ‘Cloggers’ or ‘Clogs of War’ (geddit?) who ‘shamed the game’. Rarely in the field of sporting conflict has so much moralistic guff been spouted by so many about so little.
Straight after the final whistle on the BBC, Alan Hansen set the tone for the nation: ‘I just don’t think there is any place in football for the way the Netherlands approached this match. They kicked the opposition up and down the pitch for 120 minutes - but in the end, Andrés Iniesta ensured World Cup glory went the right way, to Spain.’
Alan Shearer, a man never knowingly outdone in pompous banality, concurred. We all know, of course, that neither Hansen, the former Liverpool and Scotland stopper, nor Shearer, the ex-Newcastle and England striker (in every sense of the word), have ever kicked anybody or bent any rules in their lives. Over on BBC radio, meanwhile, gormless Chris Waddle opined that the English referee ‘Howard Webb’s done his best to keep hold of the match, but the Netherlands were out of control’.
Then the third BBC TV monkey, Lee Dixon, suggested that ‘In the cold light of day we might find that Howard Webb has made a mistake in allowing the winning goal - but let’s be honest, the right team won and the best player on the pitch scored it. That’s got to be justice, hasn’t it?’ A sporting attitude that does you great credit, Lee, and no doubt you and your colleagues took exactly the same line when the best team won the 1986 World Cup after the referee missed the best player punching the ball into England’s net. That was justice, wasn’t it?
You might imagine that none of these former pros and all the other pundits had ever seen a match before, never mind played in one. This kind of rubbish about the purity of the beautiful game is normally confined to the sort of fans of the New Football who think it is all about ‘entertainment value’. In reality, robust defending and intimidating your opponents have always been integral to the game, including at the World Cup. The ‘out of control’ Dutch simply played to their strengths and their system – Mark van Bommel, cast as one of the main villains of the piece, is a top class hard-tackling footballer of a type that is sadly rare today. If the game was somewhat dull (as cup finals often are) it was because the Spanish failed to break the Dutch down.
The main reason for the record number of yellow and red cards handed out was that Webb – of whom we are all apparently supposed to be patriotically proud - is an officious prig, as one might expect, given he is a sergeant in the South Yorkshire police. Those talking as if fouls so foul have never disgraced the World Cup before are suffering a form of sporting historical amnesia. The Netherlands’ tackling last night bore no comparison to the rank brutality with which Eusebio’s brilliant Portuguese team literally kicked Brazil’s star Pele out of the 1966 World Cup in England.
Nor do the Dutch tactics to contain the skilful Spaniards look like anything extraordinary to those of us who recall the way that Claudio Gentile of Italy muscled the Argentine genius Diego Maradona out of their match at the 1982 finals in Spain. The beautiful game bores of today might do well to recall Gentile’s unapologetic declaration after that game: ‘No Señor, it is not a dancing school. Football is not for ballerinas.’
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Similarly short memories are suggested by all those experts now declaring that Spain are one of the great World Cup teams who were always the best side throughout the tournament in South Africa and unquestionably deserved to be champions. Spain came into the tournament as the bookies’ rightful favourites, boasting the most starry squad and having won the European championship two years ago. They promptly lost a dire first match against Switzerland, and scraped through playing poorly until the semi-final against Germany.
In their seven matches in South Africa, the ‘dazzling’ Spanish scored a total of eight goals – half as many as Germany (the attacking team of the tournament) scored, and fewer goals than the Netherlands and Uruguay – or even than Brazil or Argentina, neither of whom made it past the quarter finals. Spain won each of their four knockout matches by the same unspectacular 1-0 scoreline. It has been suggested that their style of keeping possession and endlessly passing the ball around eventually tires the opposition out, thus explaining why so many of Spain’s winning goals, as in the final, came very near to the end of a match. Another way of saying the same thing might be that this undoubtedly talented Spanish team bore their opponents to death.
Yes, Spain just about ‘deserved’ to win the final (although, as Clint Eastwood says in Unforgiven, ‘Deserves got nothing to do with it’). The notion that the Netherlands were mere ‘Cloggers’ is equally one-eyed. To my eyes, the Dutch had a strong contender for player of the tournament in Wesley Sneijder, while for much of the final Arjen Robben was the most dangerous attacking player on the pitch – certainly more so than eventual match-winner Iniesta – and should have won it for the Dutch well before extra time. The mind boggles at what our hyperbolical pundits would have made of such a crime against humanity.
In the absence of the dire England team from the latter stages of the World Cup, the media experts’ normal knee-jerk reaction is to embrace the ‘beautiful’ football of the ‘Samba boys’ of Brazil. They tried that this time, but unfortunately the Brazilian dream team they fantasised about was not the same as the actual one on the pitch, beaten in the quarter-finals by, lest we forget, the Netherlands. So last night Spain became a sort of substitute Samba boys for the fantasy football pundits – never mind the facts about the match, just feel the feelgood factor. At the end Hansen smugly announced that he had ‘never seen a studio so happy’. It was enough to make some of us feel a bit sick.
And then, when we thought it was all over, the ‘soccerism’ kicked in, from the news reporters asserting that Spain’s win had united the country and instantaneously overcome all the divisions and problems caused by the dire economic crisis, to the observers claiming that complaints about Spain’s slow play were typical symptoms of our ‘instant gratification’ society. A sad end to the World Cup.
Still, for all that, it was great of course, as every World Cup always is, even if none has ever quite matched the impact that the 1970 tournament made on my young mind. Only four years to the next one – roll on Brazil 2014…
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked. He has been writing on the World Cup throughout the tournament.