i know that was then, but it could be again

Well that didn’t last long. England absolutely collapsed against Germany with a catalogue of textbook errors (or a textbook of catalogue errors). I don’t want to exaggerate, but that was the worst display I have ever seen any team play ever. They should just take the next World Cup off and think about what they’ve done. Ok, maybe a little exaggeration.

england badgeMuch is being said about England’s ‘golden generation’ of stars failing to live up to their hype, ‘not as good as they think they are’, ‘over-paid’, ‘overconfident’. I can’t agree with too much of it, but some things were apparent. Rooney was non-existant and clearly unfit, Johnson was sluggish, Terry looked as though he’d never played the game before, Gerrard and Lampard looked like they were playing for two different teams (that’d be Liverpool and Chelsea, not England), and Fabio Capello appeared to be stuck on tactics that worked for him when he played Championship Manager Italia 95, but don’t work against those who play Football Manager 2010. The oft-criticized ‘long Premier League Season’, which is at least two whole games longer than in other countries, is always touted as a reason our players are so tired, but it doesn’t seem to have affected the Premier League’s foreign players such as Carlos Tevez or Tim Howard, who appear sprightly and well up for the big stage. That ‘goal that wasn’t’ was almost irrelevant after they were played off the park so completely. I’m not just gutted, I’m thoroughly disappointed. I am even annoyed about the red shorts.

That said, I am not ready to join the army of smirking and sarcastic told-you-sos who couldn’t wait to gleefully tweet and facebook-update about how England are disillusioned and deserve it because they are overpaid and overhyped (none of the other countries have those types of player, of course), and how England just fundamentally cannot win a World Cup so you chavs on your council estates waving your flags should get real, stop pretending they can. But what do they expect? Really? We’re cynical enough, don’t then tell us we can’t allow ourselves a few weeks of wild almost ritualistic hope. As Rooney would say, for fuck’s sake.

To cheer us all up, here are some facts you might like. England have won the World Cup more times than Germany (West Germany have won it three times, fair enough). Sunday’s win was only the second time the Germans have beaten England in the World Cup finals, the last being in 1970 (if you count the penalty shoot-outs as draws, which they technically are), finally matching England’s two wins over them. the last time they met in a finals, England won 1-0, in 2000. The last competitive match between the two nations, in the World Cup qualifier in 2001 in Munich , in your actual Germany, where England won 5-1 (Germany could only manage a paltry four on Sunday!). To all those who say the rivalry is one-sided and England simply can’t ever beat Germany, it’s not true. It’s just they are usually better than we are against all the other teams.

Truth is, of course England are capable of winning it – they have won it before, albeit a long time ago. Spain have never won it (in fact England have consistently done better at World Cups than Spain), but we don’t say the Spanish are fundamentally incapable . Same goes for the Dutch, even the Portuguese.  No matter what Alexei Lalas says, it is fair enough for the English to believe it’s possible – they have what many other countries consider the best league in the world, and on paper we all know those players have the ability (ok, maybe not Heskey). I do question whether the players on the pitch really believed it. Italy won it four years ago without having the best team in the tournament. Greece and Denmark both won the Euros as the surprise package. If teams stop believing it can be done, we may as well just engrave Brazil’s name on the trophy and give it to them every four years.

everyone’s a winner baby, that’s the truth

england win! usa win! everyone's a winner! (except them what lost)

Except for France (see previous). The World Cup is very exciting now! Apart from the Brazil – Portugal borefest, and for every finale of Slovakia – Italy, you get a finale of Chile – Spain. The second phase begins, with Landon ‘Groupwinner’ Donovan leading the USA against Ghana, and England facing their old nemesis: England v Germany, game on, it’s too early in the tournament but who cares, the World Cup begins (and probably ends) here.

Cartooned quickly in my football journal.

allez les bleus! en est tous ensemble…

domenech

Poor France. Seriously, I feel for their fans. I haven’t always felt so. Back in 2002, I lived in the south of France when they were champions of the World, Europe and the Inner Solar System. Public opinion prior to the Japan/South korea World Cup was that you could have Pele, Maradona, Puskas, Cruyff, anyone out there and France would still win without breaking a sweat. The player’s faces were on every yoghurt carton, every soda bottle, every TV advert; Zidane was a god whose image was omnipresent; and that awfully catchy song by ancient Franco-Belgian pop star Johnny Halliday, “Allez les Bleus!” Such was Gallic confidence, you could buy their shirts with the second golden star already sewn on.

And then they went to the far east, and failed to score a single goal. They came home stunned; nobody could quite believe it. The bubble burst. Never again would the previously soccer-cynical French public let themselves get so carried away with expectation. Therefore, it was a bit of a surprise that they came within a headbutt of winning the trophy in 2006. Even more of a surprise, retrospectively at least, is that the manager that took them so close four years ago is the same one who is so universally reviled now, Raymond Domenech, who I attempted to draw above in my football journal. 

What happened? I recall their pitiful display at Euro 2008, when he held a press conference not to explain the dismal defeats they had suffered, but to propose to his girlfriend. France had no confidence in him, and yet kept him on, knowing he’d be replaced after the World Cup with former player and favourite, Laurent Blanc. They scraped through a qualification play-off, thanks to a Thierry Henry handball, but in South Africa it all went ventre-up. Player revolts, Anelka being sent home, training ground bust-ups – other teams would give their right leg to play in this tournament and this is how they all behave? And then against host nation South Africa, Domenech refuses to shake the opposing manager’s hand. French football is in chaos. The French president himself is demanding answers from this shambles.

“Allez les bleus, en est tous ensemble,” sang Johnny Halliday, “allez les bleus, en est tous avec vous.” Not any more they’re not.

gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away

The World Cup continues; France play embarassingly badly to lose to Mexico, Germany are beaten by Serbia, Spain lose to the Swiss; England on the other hand won a hard-earned point against a well-oiled team that knocked out the reigning African champions and beat West Germany in the World Cup finals much more recently than England did (in 1982). Well done England! It was an effortless display. You made no effort whatsover.

rooney getting sarky

England’s 0-0 draw with Algeria was possibly the worst and least creative display I’ve ever seen from an England team (and boy have we seen some of those!!) And the thousands of loyal fans, very loyal fans, who travelled thousands of miles and spent thousands of pounds to be there for them and bring their band to play ‘the Great Escape’ loud enough to be faintly heard above the drone of the vuvuzelas, they deserved better. They are part of this experience and had a right to boo. I understand Rooney was pissed off at that, slagging the fans off on camera at the end of the match, but he and everyone else appeared too scared to get stuck in and prove why we should be crowned World Champions. Let’s face it, on the evidence we really do not, and I think a lot of the players think that as well. Algeria looked far more confident, imaginitive, skillful. We barely deserved the point. 

Cameroon went out today after a thrilling match against Denmark, and they were much livelier than England. I did a few quick sketches during the match. I like Denmark, but I felt bad for Cameroon. And so as teams get eliminated, the World Cup continues…

cameroon v denmark

whoops!

robert green: doh!

Damn those Vuvuzelas, eh! It’s been a funny World Cup so far, very colourful, ‘early doors’ but not hugely eventful. Oh, er, except for that howler. I would say, after that 1-1 draw with the US, “same old England”, but in the past England had really good goalkeepers (except in penalty shoot-outs, ahem).   

To celebrate the England – USA match, I made a nice English trifle. Kind of appropriate really, ‘cos they played like puddings. Early doors yet though! And I have been trying to sketch during matches (see Uruguay vs France below) – not easy!

uruguay v france

all the stage is a world

The World Cup is finally here! After all the talk, after the training, the hype, the injuries to big names, the predictions, the greatest show on earth starts in a matter of hours in South Africa. I cannot wait. It is like Christmas Eve. Of course, the matches are all on so early that I’ll be setting my VCR. Damn you, ten hour time difference!

south africa shirt

And per tradition, that perennially poor prognostic Mystic Pete has been whispering some predictions to me lately, namely that Brazil will win but it won’t be pretty. This is because (he says) European teams don’t win it outside Europe, which realistically leaves only Brazil and Argentina. Argentina probably have the better stars, but Brazil’s manager will drill them into a better team. Mystic Pete also says, sorry guys, Spain won’t win it, because Spain always do badly at the Wolrd Cup, it’s a tradition, like Scotland never passing round one, or England losing on penalties and having their star players sent off unfairly. (Of course, Mystic Pete fans will know this probably means Spain will in fact win it). He says though, the one Euopean team that could go furthest is… Holland. Nobody is talking about the Dutch, but they have some great players, a great team, and a good manager. As for England, well we all hope of course, but Mystic Pete is saying ‘no comment’ (yeah, last time he said they’d lose the final to Germany). Which African team will do well, and be the new South Korea or Senegal? Ghana and Ivory Coast are the best bets, but it’s a shame Egypt never got there, they have a good team (oops: Mystic Pete predicted them to qualify! Doh).

And then there are the kits… I may have to tackle that in a separate post. South Africa’s new adidas shirt is pictured, and as ever this is a battle between the Adidas and Nike shirts, though Puma’s ones this time are quite nice, the African designs at least. England are the only Umbro participants, and what a beautiful couple of kits they have.

The players to watch? Rooney, Messi, Ronaldo, obviously; Kaka, Drogba (if his injury heals), Xavi for Spain; but this tournament always comes up with unexpected heroes, and villains. I’ll be keeping an eye on the Tottenham players (I hope they don’t do too well, in case someone notices them!).

Oh man, a whole month of footy; I only get this every four years. I hope I have time for sketching! Bonne Coupe du Monde! May the least cheating team win!  

PS: I will be changing the background colour of my blog each day,  to match whichever team I am supporting on that day… to keep you guessing…

all those oh-so-nears

england 1966

Watching the World Cup warm-ups this week, I saw on the side of the North korean bus something like, “Heroes of 1966, Korea DPR will be victorious!” For those who don’t know, North Korea’s last World Cup appearance saw them beat Italy and go 3-0 up against Eusebio’s Portugal in the quarter-finals (before losing 5-3). My first reaction was, now come on North Korea, let it go. 1966 was ages ago! Get over it, move on, don’t live on past glories. England would never do that, eh!

As kids at school we learnt that the Battle of Hastings was 1066, the Great Fire of London was 1666, and England won the World Cup in 1966. History did apparently happen on other non-66 years, but the England football team winning major tournaments alas did not. Years of Keegan, Lineker, Gazza, Beckham… all those oh-so-nears wear you down. Thirty years of hurt became fourty-four, and I can’t see that we have improved so much that we will be able to get past another inevitable penalty shoot-out, probably against the Germans. (Incidentally, England has won the World Cup more times than Germany. ‘West Germany’ however won it three times…) Still we like to hope, and we have Wayne Rooney.

England open their 2010 World Cup against the USA on Saturday. Hopefully it won’t turn out like the first time they played each other in a World Cup, in 1950. On that occasion, when England first deigned to take part in this silly cup of inferior nations, the seasoned US beat the England of Mortenson, Finney and Wright 1-0. The US team still talks about it even now; come on now, 1950 was ages ago, etc etc…

the greatest

pele

Who was the greatest footballer of all time? And is that the same thing as the best footballer of all time? For most people the default answer is Pele. Even for those who never saw him play, except for a few inventive long shots, a header saved by Gordon Banks and that scene with the tactics board in Escape to Victory, he is the greatest footballer of all time. We trust what they all say; those who watched him know what they’re on about. He did score more than a thousand goals for his club, Santos. He did win World Cups in super stylish fashion, surrounded by a super stylish team, at the time when the TV age was bringing the World Cup to many more millions than ever before. I’m just saying. True, Pele never tested himself in the big European leagues, preferring to stay at Santos where the goal just opened up for him, but he also didn’t live in an age where the multi-million dollar transfer to Real Madrid was absolutely inevitable; unlike so many ‘new Peles’ after him, Santos were able to ‘match his ambitions’. He did live in the age where you went off to the United States for a bagload of cash though (yes Beckham, it has been done before), finishing off his career at New York Cosmos in the NASL, before helping the Allies (along with Sylvester Stallone and half the Ipswich team) defeat Nazi Germany. Can’t get greater than that.

However, I was a kid in the 1980s, so for me Maradona is king, hands down. It’s all subjective. Puskas might have been the best. Stanley Matthews even. If Rivelino, Gerson, Carlos Alberto et al had all been born Ulstermen, George Best may have lifted the Jules Rimet in 1970 in the green of Northern Ireland, and we’d probably all be saying he was the greatest of all time. I’m just saying.

I’m sketching World Cup greats in my football sketchbook in anticipation of the World Cup, which begins next week.

Week Forty-One: I’m Gonna Git You, Soccer

As the 2006 World Cup blasts away into the history books, everybody’s talking about him. Well, a lot of people are talking about him. A bit. And most of them are foreigners. Yet there is a sense that, for a few shining moments, most people in America know who Zinedine Zidane is, that bald French guy who finished his soccer career by head butting an Italian square in the chest. “This is one Frenchie who doesn’t surrender!” Quite. Of course, now it’s all over, and the brief and unusual connection to the rest of the world’s reality has been immediately replaced with all of the arguments of why they don’t like football/soccer here anyway. My eyes were led to an article on the front of USA Today, that acme of journalism (or is it acne?), entitled “Why the United States doesn’t take to soccer.”

The usual arguments are bandied about – not enough scoring, not enough strategy, and what’s the deal with those ties? We want winners! While many Americans – usually of immigrant stock – follow the World Cup with a passion (if no other tournament), most are unimpressed, preferring to stick with what they know. Yet the article threw up other factors for the lack of American interest in the Beautiful Game: “Soccer has roots in Britain,” it states, “which exported the game to its colonies some 150 years ago. Little surprise we just said no.” Even though American Football has its origins in the rules of Rugby Union that came from, yup, Britain (source 1, 2). Another myth that the Brits for one love to uphold is that ‘soccer’ is an Americanism, yet it originated in the English press at the end of the last century as a shortening of ‘association football’, to prevent confusion with the pick-the-ball-up variety. The century-and-a-half argument between the hand and foot versions of the ball game did assert itself, when a sports pundit remarked that soccer lacked proficiency, and what skills are displayed are as irrelevant as plate-spinning: “God didn’t intend us to use our feet and our heads,” although I suspect he was actually referring to the sport of sitting in front of mind-numbingly bad TV.

‘Un-American’, ‘Not in our DNA’; let’s face it, footy, the US is Just Not That Into You. But I get the feeling that headlines like this are more of an attempt to reassure worried Americans that their traditional culture base is not under threat from the Sport of the Foreigner. Completely bypassing Budweiser-commercial irony, it is even suggested by one supposed academic that the sport might be accepted if they make some American-friendly changes, such as getting rid of those pesky goalkeepers. But it really does come down to what football does best, and that is simple tribal loyalty – you stick to what you grew up with. As long as the media paints soccer as ‘new to America’ and as the sport of the foreigner, people will never have the same attachments to it as their own sports, with their own long histories. History is important to this tribal loyalty, and many Americans don’t realize that their own country’s World Cup history stretches further back than England, and even current champions Italy. The US came joint-third in the first World Cup, and in England’s first ever appearance, in 1950, they lost – yes, lost – to the Americans.

Does the world even want America to be that good at football though? I get the impression outside of the US that football is better off without the ‘American touch’, and that too much American interest could damage the game and turn it into a soulless, corporate-suckling mega-financial madhouse where dollars talk more than loyalty and players care more for massive sponsorships than for trophies (whereas, what we have now, um… ). So why does America always tell itself that it’s on a planet outside the soccer world? It could be because of isolationist issues, let the world do their thing and we’ll do our thing; on the other hand it could be that they secretly want to be on the team, but feel nervous about their chances, not wanting to be the last kid left against the school-yard wall. Before the First World War, the US was not really a player globally, it preferred to be out there on its own. The twentieth century saw America take a centre-stage politically, before ultimately becoming the Brazil of global affairs. If the US takes the same initiatives on the football field as they have on the battlefield, they could dominate (though they’d probably score a lot more own-goals, and you wouldn’t want to be sent off against them, or you may be sent to an off-shore holding camp for ‘red-carded combatants’ ). This, I feel, may be an analogy too far (though I know there’s a joke in there about handing out green cards). Let’s just say for now that you watch football, I watch football, let’s call the whole thing off.

Week Thirty-Eight: Time to learn Spanish

Watching the World Cup on the Mexican channels has been a real education this past week. I have not once turned over to the English-language channels, and am therefore utterly ignorant of anything that does not involve the World Cup or overly made-up and underly dressed-up women dancing around to loud cheering and leering by moustachioed hosts on the pretence that this has something to do with sport. I don’t miss the American news or the endless repeats, and I’m picking up some useful vocabulary too. “Delantero” means ‘striker’, “tiro penal” means ‘penalty’, and “goooooooooooollllll” means ‘I may be mistaken, but I do believe somebody has scored’.

I am going to buy a dictionary; it is about time I learnt Spanish. I cannot believe I have put it off thus far. I know I should probably learn to drive as well, but how am I going to understand the insults thrown my way on the freeway if I can’t speak Spanish? I see it everywhere, I hear it everywhere, so the problem of exposure will not be an issue. And watching these channels has made me realise that America really is bilingual, and I honestly don’t understand why this is not recognised on an official level. The TV stations are not being broadcast from Mexico – they are American. Sure, they are Mexico-centric as far as football and some shows are concerned, but they are for Spanish-speaking Americans. This is never more clear than in the adverts. Some of them are almost exactly the same as their Anglophone equivalents but re-shot with Spanish-speaking actors (such as the ones for Jack-in-the-Box), others are for products available to all Americans such as mobile-phone plans including maps of the US showing Spanish being spoken in every corner (giving the jarring impession that Spanish is actually the first and not the ‘minority’ language, as if this is some sort of parallel universe). There are certainly more football-themed commercials (unsurprising, being the World Cup), even poking fun at the English-speaking Americans’ distrust of football, such as one which shows a short Hispanic guy buying a new TV at WalMart, ending with a shot of him on the sofa with his large American buddy, who looks in horror at the screen and whines, “soccer??”

It is as though I have dipped my toe into a hidden country within the US. Its boundaries are clearly not simply linguistic, but encompass cultural things such as watching the World Cup. There really is a footy-mad media here in this land. People here really do want to watch soccer on TV with a can of cerveza and some nachos. It’s just that they speak Spanish. the mainstream English-speaking media has really failed to tap into this culture in any real way, and ‘soccer’ therefore becomes associated with the foreign, the non-American. Those who advocate the idea of ‘English First’, in which English is made the sole official language of the nation, do so because they are threatened by the Spanish speaking ‘other’, and their ways of life; yet it feels as though if you want to become a part of English-speaking America, you have to become part of their culture, watching baseball and American football, while relegating football/soccer to the foreign underclass.

Well, no more. I will learn Spanish, if this is the only way I can watch my footy, and I will speak to people at my local Mexican restaurant in their own tongue, learn their mannerisms, understand their culture. Of course, I could just pay the extra and get the cable package that has ESPN or Fox Soccer channel; but for one thing I’d be giving in to the man, and secondly I’d be missing out on those crazy Mexican commentators, like the one who actually gave birth today when Joe Cole scored what he descibed as a “golazo”, or ‘an absolute cracker’.