Offside, 20 June
In this Alice in Wonderland tournament conventional football wisdom has been turned on its head.
Saturday 15 June
I had arrived at the pub an hour before kick-off to claim a good vantage point. I nervously watched as Very Tall People sidled past, but fortunately they didn’t plant themselves in front of me. The game itself was surprisingly agony-free. I was expecting a nail-biter: extra-time, possibly even penalties. But in the end Denmark never really posed a threat.
Every time England scored I was drenched in beer. Three-nil. Bring on Brazil! ‘We’re not going home’, sang the England fans in Niigata. I wasn’t going home either. I spent the rest of the afternoon drinking for Ingerland.
Ever since that Norwegian commentator (whose name escapes me) taunted Winston Churchill, Maggie Thatcher et al that our boys had taken ‘a hell of beating’, it has become customary to address our vanquished opponents in the same manner. After England’s victory over Denmark it fell to the News of the World to continue this fine tradition. ‘Hans Christian Anderson, Helena Christensen, Hamlet, Peter Schmeichel, Whigfield and Douglas, the small trombone-playing butter man from the Lurpak ads…your boys took one hell of a Danish pasting!’, crowed the paper’s editorial (2). Søren Kierkegaard and Lars Von Trier might count themselves a little unlucky to have been omitted from this list of exalted Danes.
Sunday 16 June
I woke up with the mother of all sore throats. The lack of sleep, the excessive shouting, and the all-day drinking sessions were taking their toll. Shared national experiences are bad for your health, I reflected. Then it occurred to me that my sore throat was also part of the shared experience. Indeed, the Independent on Sunday reported that sales of Strepsils throat lozenges had risen by 50 percent as a result of all our collective shouting (3). A nation has shouted itself hoarse. It was National Sore Throat Day.
Spain really should have beaten Ireland comfortably. But in this Alice in Wonderland tournament all conventional football wisdom has been turned on its head. Spain controlled the game for an hour but unwisely chose to sit back and defend their 1-0 lead. Then, inexplicably, Fernando Hierro tried to swap shirts with Niall Quinn a minute before the final whistle and Robbie Keane’s penalty forced the match into extra-time. In the end Spain were hanging on with only 10 men after their third substitute, Albelda, suffered a freak twisted testicle injury (a condition so horrific it doesn’t bear thinking about), but survived to win on penalties.
In case you thought only the British are prone to heaping quasi-religious significance on our footballers, then check out the virtual deification of goalkeeper Iker Casillas in the Spanish media. ‘Iker isn’t human’, wrote journalist Tomas Roncero in the sports daily AS. ‘The day he came to Earth, light shone down upon his house like it did at the gate of Bethlehem when Jesus Christ arrived in the world. He’s immune to pain, mistakes and bad luck.’ (4)
In truth, Spain owed their shoot-out victory to Ireland’s comical incompetence at taking penalties. (Never mind lads, there’s always the Pizza Hut adverts to look forward to.) But Spanish coach Jose Antonio Camacho refused to accept that luck was on his side. ‘We weren’t lucky. It’s the Irish who have a flower in their arses’, he ranted: ‘They got a penalty in the eighty-ninth minute, we had to play extra-time with nine-and-a-half players, and the referee was unreal.’ Maybe something got twisted in translation, but Camacho’s language seems strangely psychedelic. Perhaps this explains why his armpits were always so sweaty.
Monday 17 June
It is a measure of the limited resources available to the USA that one of their central defenders is Gregg Berhalter, who spent most of the season warming the bench at Crystal Palace. But now Palace – or more accurately Palace Reserves – improbably have a player in the quarter-finals of the World Cup after the USA beat Mexico 2-0.
‘It’s a truly global game now. Federations all over the world are getting stronger and there’s no longer an established order’, declared US coach Bruce Arena in revolutionary fashion. President Bush even phoned the team to deliver a message of support, saying: ‘A lot of people who didn’t even know anything about soccer, like me, are all excited and pulling for you.’
World Cup fever has barely touched the US public, and most games have only been shown on cable channels. Although football is a big participation sport among American suburban kids and soccer moms, it is not a popular spectator sport. However, with George Bush getting ‘excited’ over something he knows nothing about, could the USA at last be wising up to the beautiful game? The answer, almost certainly, is no.
Tuesday 18 June
‘Welcome to Azzuri’s Tomb’, read the banner in the Daejeon stadium. And sure enough it was here that Italy, another of the pre-tournament favourites, were buried by the South Koreans. The moment that Joe Royle declared that ‘Italy have made defence into an art form’ I should have realised that the Azzurri were done for. Readers of this column might recall that I tipped Italy to win the World Cup and, moreover, pledged to eat my football shorts if England lifted the trophy. With my career as a tipster in tatters, all recipes for braised or pot-roasted football shorts will be gratefully received.
So how do we explain the extraordinary series of upsets in this tournament? FIFA has reportedly launched a medical investigation into burn-out among top players. Former German captain Franz Beckenbauer blames the excessive demands of European club football: ‘There are billions of people watching this World Cup and they are watching tired stars’, said the Kaiser.
I just don’t buy this explanation. It is simply not true that today’s footballers are playing more games than their predecessors were 20 years’ ago. The squads are larger (and rotated) and the players are fitter.
I see two main reasons why so many big names have been humbled. The gap between the game’s traditional powers and the emerging football nations is narrowing, as large numbers of non-European players are now plying their trade in Europe. Even South Korea, whose squad is largely Asian-based, have benefited from the experience of former Dutch national coach Guus Hiddink. Korea were well-organised, technically skilful and more than a match for Italy when it came to fitness.
The second factor is that FIFA rule changes over the past decade have shifted the balance of power from defenders to forwards. Traditional forms of gamesmanship (eg, shirt-pulling) and over-physical tackles are now penalised. The penalties given against Spain and Italy for shirt-tugging simply would not have been awarded in the past.
These two factors have made it much more difficult for teams like Italy to kill games off in the way they once did. Of course, after losing the Euro 2000 final in identical fashion, the Azzurri should have realised that sitting on a one-goal lead was a high-risk game. As the BBC commentator Barry Davies put it: ‘They lost it because they will not learn.’
(1) Football can change the world, Observer, 16 June 2002
(2) News of the World, 16 June 2002
(3) Independent on Sunday, 16 June 2002
(4) Spain breathes sigh of relief, Guardian, 17 June 2002
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