Monday 21 June 2010

World Cup musings.

I can stay silent no longer now that the World Cup is halfway through. I almost took a vow of chastity at the start of the tournament saying I would watch not one of the games out of principle rather interest because, well, the script would turn out to be so predictable.

I finally bowed to peer pressure on Friday night after being accused of being unpatriotic and not supporting the team. I had my reasons for not wanting to and how right I was. I think the whole nation let out a collective and humongous groan after that abject display of cowardice. I feel so sorry for the Algerians as they were expecting to play the fourth best national team in the world, not the fourth worst.

And now the French have imploded too. Quelle surprise! I think that the situation with both the English and French exemplifies all that is wrong in football now. (And please be assured I do have a partial handle on the debate. My great grandfather was a wing half for the Woolwich Arsenal and then assistant trainer at Chelsea, while a former husband was a sports journalist).

For starters, the English players were complaining about the pressure they were under to do well. At £90,000 a week, I would expect pressure to be part of the overall package of the checks and balances it takes to be a modern day overpaid entertainer, sorry, footballer. And it just goes to show that even if you have a group of world class players - Terry, Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney to name but four - gathered together in one place, it does not result in world-class team football. Far from it.

And the French? Sacre bleu. It would be Nicolas Anelka at the centre of the ructions, wouldn't it? He is one piece of work and I should imagine he would be a nightmare to work with especially as his closest family also double up as agents, PR people and general sycophants. I have yet to see an ounce of humility spring from within the man.

No, the real stories from this World Cup come from the little guys, the ones like New Zealand that are raising their games and creating the shocks against the big boys. This is because they have absolutely nothing to prove, so they can go out there, do their best and have some fun....and surely, that is the essence of football.

I was watching Paraguay against Slovakia yesterday. Apart from a vested interest because my sister in law is Paraguayan, they were an absolute joy to behold. They played for each other - as a team - never gave up, were gritty and determined, adventurous and created some fantastic chances in front of goal. That is how I remember the game - playing for fun as well as for the glory.

So on Wednesday, England have to recapture some of that joy and passion - even the Bishop of Croydon is writing prayers for them so desperate times call for desperate measures. You can be the best player in the world but unless it comes from the heart rather than the wallet, it is just not going to happen.

I will admit that I actually remember that incredible 1966 World Cup Final. I was a wee girl of eight and the match was watched on black and white television, but the enormity and emotion of the occasion has never left me. That is because England were the underdogs.

In theory, Brazil or West Germany should have won. But on this one brilliant summer's day, the team chemistry became pure alchemy. The balance was absolutely perfect - a mixture of superstars such as Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore, coupled with the grafters Nobby Stiles and Alan Ball, a sublime and confident goalkeeper Gordon Banks, some lethal finishing from Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, plus a couple of solid yeomen George Cohen and Ray Wilson keeping a stalwart defence.

The manager Sir Alf Ramsey was not without fault, but the players never questioned him and just got on with the job. And their financial rewards for such an achievement were not stratospheric but mention their names now and there is still a celestial ring to them. This is because they simply exceeded all expectations.

We have the opposite situation now but really we have not learned the lessons of the recent past (the 44 years since the World Cup came to England) because the same scenarios keep cropping up - the goalkeeping conundrum, the injuries, the mindset, the blame culture -same old, same old. God forbid that will not also include the penalty-taking horror-show.

On this day too, the ultimate champion Roger Federer, facing a first round exit at Wimbledon of such magnitude as to be unthinkable, suddenly found that untapped well of reserve resources which turned the match around to such a degree, the fifth set ended 6-0 in his favour.

Without that self-belief, without that passion and above all, the reason why sports exists - for that sheer sense of achievement and fun - and irrespective of how much it pays you materially, well, basically, what's the point?

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