Offside, 6 June
The French don't deserve a great football team.
Too much football on TV? Certainly not. I can’t get enough of it. This week I’ve been mostly eating, sleeping, and drinking World Cup football. What follows is my diary of the first week.
Friday 31 May
The pub was packed with City workers taking in the opening game of the tournament between France and Senegal. Perhaps it’s an old-fashioned ‘Hop-off-you-frogs’ animosity towards the French or perhaps it’s the love of the underdog but everyone was rooting for Senegal.
My own view is that France is not a football-loving nation and does not deserve such a great football team. As they half-heartedly sing that irritating playground chant, Allez les Bleus, one suspects the French would be far happier watching rugby or cycling.
France began the game strutting around imperiously but it was soon clear that their ageing defence was vulnerable to pace. They didn’t like it up ’em. And there is no sweeter sight in world football than seeing that arrogant whinger Frank Leboeuf skinned by El Hadji Diouf in the build-up to the winning goal. It wasn’t the prettiest goal but the dancing-round-the-shirt celebration was exemplary.
Saturday 1 June
Eat Cornflakes, drink coffee, watch Ireland v Cameroon. These early kick-offs are a killer, but if all matches are this good then such privations will be worthwhile. Cameroon are the reigning African champions, but if you were expecting the archetypal happy-go-lucky African team that plays ‘with smiles on their faces’ yet defends ‘naively’, you were wrong.
Most of the team are based in France and their manager, Winfried Schafer, is a German. ‘Let’s say that when Cameroon play now, we look a bit like Germany’, said Real Madrid wing-back Geremi. Anyone who watched the snore-fest that was the African Cup of Nations would readily agree. Cameroon ground out results with Teutonic efficiency and organisation but very little attacking flair.
But Cameroon are not as German as they’d like to think. Having gone 1-0 up against Ireland they were unable to defend their lead in the second half. Ireland AK (After Keane), once again revelling in their traditional role of plucky underdogs, rallied to achieve yet another heroic 1-1 draw that is the stuff of Irish legend.
Meanwhile in Sapporo, the real Germans, having sneaked into the finals through the back door, put paid to that contemporary cliché ‘There is no such thing as an easy game in the World Cup’. Saudi Arabia defended so haplessly that Carsten Jancker, who failed to score a single goal for Bayern Munich last season, was made to look like an international striker. This would have been a stroll for almost anyone, except perhaps Scotland.
Sunday 2 June
An estimated five million people watched England v Sweden in pubs. I was not one of them. Nursing a sore head I just wasn’t in the mood for a beer, let alone a shared national experience. Instead, it was over to a friend’s house for a very civilised champagne breakfast.
England games are occasionally exciting and emotionally draining, but more often than not they are tedious and dispiriting. The most depressing thing was the ineffectual long-ball game that England employed. Surely this is taking 1980s nostalgia too far?
Having secured England’s World Cup qualification, Sven has been treated with exceptional reverence by the British press. But some are now starting to question Sven’s tactical wisdom. ‘[J]ust because a coach comes from overseas, it doesn’t mean he is a tactical genius’, wrote Tony Adams in the Observer (1). The press haven’t yet turned against him, but any more performances like this and the Swede might be given the turnip treatment.
Monday 3 June
What would the World Cup be without Brazil? They play football to the rhythm of the samba, don’t they? Well, maybe those days are over. Brazil struggled in the South American qualifying group and coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is renowned not for beautiful football but for ordering his teams to commit more fouls than their opponents.
As it went, Brazil played with more attacking flair than I had expected. Indeed, the game against Turkey had it all: three goals, two red cards, beautiful women in the crowd, the world’s greatest player outrageously feigning injury, and, of course, orgasmic gasps from the commentator whenever a Brazilian player performed a step-over.
I’ve tipped Italy to win the World Cup this year. Against Ecuador they could have scored a hatful, but typically, having gone 2-0 up, the Italians decided to kill the game off. There is something admirable about this ruthless professionalism. The Brazilians are showmen but the Azzuri make no concessions to entertaining the neutrals. Winning is all that matters.
Tuesday 4 June
I’ve heard it said that the atmosphere at games has been flat because the Japanese are not naturally expressive people. I have never been to a Japanese football match, but the atmosphere in Saitama as Japan drew 2-2 with Belgium seemed pretty electric from where I was sitting (on my sofa 6000 miles away). And when South Korea trounced the hapless Poles 2-0, the sight of tens of thousands of red-shirted Koreans going mental in celebration was also breathtaking. It’s only a matter of time before Pele rashly predicts that an Asian team will win the World Cup within 10 years.
Wednesday 5 June
Thousands of suspected terrorists were banned from the USA’s opening game against Portugal. If any terrorists did manage to slip through the security net, they will have enjoyed a famous World Cup upset as plucky little USA beat the mighty Portugal, who inexplicably defended with Saudi-like ineptness.
I watched the Ireland v Germany game in a pub. There wasn’t much ‘craic’, or whatever it is that the loveable Irish supporters are supposed to possess, as Germany took the lead. But Ireland, playing composed, passing football, that appears to be beyond the capabilities of England, fought back and dominated the game. Just as another undeserved German victory loomed, up popped Robbie Keane to score a dramatic last-minute equaliser. The pub erupted. Another heroic draw for the Irish to celebrate. I suspect Roy Keane would have been furious that they had failed to win.
(1) Observer, 2 June 2002
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