Offside, 14 June
Adios amigos - and remember, it's only a game.
The following events take place between 6 June and 11 June in the run up to the 2002 World Cup final.
Friday 7 June
Where were you during England’s historic win over Argentina? Invariably there will be a plethora of World Cup nostalgia programmes featuring professional reminiscence expert Stuart Maconie, a National Grid spokesman talking about the half-time power surge, a football-mad vicar who was conducting a wedding service, and a man whose wife was in labour at the time (who subsequently named his son Sven Sapporo Beckham).
For me, it was a game of two halves. I was in a pub in Brixton during the first half. Then Beckham lashed home the penalty, pandemonium ensued, and the TV picture died all in the space of a few seconds. Fearing a Missed National Experience, we beat a hasty retreat from the pub, jumped on a bus, and managed to find a pub in Herne Hill in time for the second half. At the final whistle the mass jubilation (mingled with typically British disbelief) showed up the Jubilee for the contrived pantomime of togetherness that it was, underlining the fact that the England football team is the one national institution today that is capable of inspiring genuine popular enthusiasm.
Saturday 8 June
Last week the nation was in mourning after the dire 1-1 draw against Sweden. And such is our propensity for overreaction that we celebrated victory over Argentina as if we had won the World Cup itself. The myth of sporting invincibility was, in the past, an integral component of Britain’s national self-image and the main reason why the English Football Association disdainfully refused to participate in any World Cup tournament until 1950. Today we see ourselves as heroic losers – 30 years of hurt and all that.
Consequently the win over Argentina has been hailed as vengeance – or ‘Svengeance’ as the Daily Mirror put it – for all the years of footballing misery inflicted on us by Johnny Foreigner. But quite how many years of hurt had been avenged wasn’t clear. ‘Beckham ends four years of hurt’, declared the Sun, recalling the midfielder’s dismissal in France 98. ‘He shoots. He scores. And England avenge 16 years of hurt’, said the Independent, still haunted by Maradona’s Hand of God in 1986. ‘England swept away 36 years of pain and outrageous fortune on a magical night in Sapporo when the Argentine bull was finally brought to heel’, proclaimed the Sun (again), referring to England’s one and only World Cup triumph. Well, there has been an awful lot of hurt so it’s easy to get confused about precisely how much.
The day after England’s victory we were treated to endless TV replays of Beckham’s goal, interrupted every now and then by a World Cup game. The biggest shock was seeing the Italians, for whom defending is an art form, suddenly descend into defensive chaos for 10 minutes to gift Croatia a 2-1 victory. Meanwhile Brazil, now favourites for the title, put four goals past China who, despite having two former Crystal Palace players in their ranks, are clearly out of their depth at this level.
Brazil’s foul-loving coach Big Phil Scolari thinks China’s problem was their failure to commit enough fouls: ‘I think they are innocent. It’s not that I encourage players to commit fouls, but if the other team is building up a good move and you have a chance to stop it, there’s nothing wrong with giving away a free kick.’
Sunday 9 June
The highlight of the day for me was Japan’s historic 1-0 win over Russia – their first victory in the World Cup finals. Sweeter still because the incessant carping about the Japanese has been really getting on my nerves. Japan, we are told, does not have a football culture, World Cup fever has not gripped the country, the fans don’t cheer their team on properly, and so on. It is true that baseball is a bigger sport in Japan, but football is increasingly popular among the younger generation.
The victory over Russia put paid to the myth that Japanese fans only make a noise when the ball is near the goal. ‘Whatever happened to the stereotype of the inscrutable Japanese?’, exclaimed Barry Davis, as 60,000 Japanese fans in the Yokohama stadium chanted, screamed, clapped, and cheered non-stop throughout the game. It was even reported that 140 people jumped off a bridge into the Osaka river to celebrate. What was that about the absence of World Cup fever?
Monday 10 June
Novelty goal celebrations have been disappointingly rare at this tournament. Senegal’s shirt dance against France was superb, Julius Aghahowa’s back-flip routine for Nigeria was breathtaking, and the fat South African coach’s two-handed yanking gesture was bizarre bordering on the obscene. But otherwise most celebrations have lacked imagination.
Thankfully, the South Koreans delivered a memorable celebration. When Ahn Jung-Hwan equalised against the USA he ran to the corner flag and performed an ice-skating mime as a riposte to the controversial disqualification of a South Korean speed skater at this year’s Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. In the ITV studio Ali McCoist thought this gesture was a bit unnecessary. On the contrary, Ali, the more needle the better – or have you forgotten why the atmosphere at Old Firm derbies is so electric?
Tuesday 11 June
Denmark 2 – France 0. Au revoir les Bleus. And to think we spent all that time worrying whether England could avoid France in the second round. Right now it seems as if football’s world order is being turned on its head. The one team that continues to maintain World Cup traditions is Germany. They aren’t pretty to watch and many of the players are just plain ugly, but Germany have somehow managed to grind out improbable results.
Cameroon are wannabe Germans, but they lack the mental toughness or discipline of the real Germans. Although they had their chances in the first half, they lost the plot in the second and blew their chance of qualification. Germany qualified along with the lovable Irish, whose fancy-dressed fans with their silly leprechaun hats and clownish antics are beginning to irritate me.
Wednesday 12 June
‘I woke up this morning, I got myself a beer’, sang Jim Morrison. Morning drinking is normally the preserve of market traders and alcoholics, but today four million people in England enjoyed a breakfast-time pint as pubs opened their doors from 7am.
Not me though. It was too early for beer and I was far too nervous to eat, so I watched the game, cup of coffee in hand, in my neighbour’s flat. Ninety-one nerve-fraying minutes later England had qualified, having negotiated what is known in the trade as a ‘banana skin’. Cut to scenes of distraught Argentine players slumped to the ground. Gabriel Batistuta, the man they call Batigol, was weeping like a child. Batiblub, if you like.
It is tempting to gloat but schadenfreude is such an ignoble sentiment (trying hard to suppress a smirk). The tournament will be poorer without Argentina (barely suppressed giggle). Adios amigos – and remember, it’s only a game (hysterical fits of laughter).
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