Archive | June, 2006

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Poor Spain, but France are now better than Brazil

Posted on 28 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

Impossible not to feel a lot of sympathy for Spain. Like England in 1998, they came to the tournament with a determination that this time, their talent would find its reward – and, like England, after playing impressively, they’ve gone out in the Second Round.

You can’t force football history – football’s magical coincidences, mawkish anniversaries, years of hurt and – increasingly – its graves and memorials, are all bunk when it comes to what’s going to happen next. We should all have picked this one up in 1953, when England’s undefeated home record was surrendered – thankfully, not to e.g. Belgium, but to the greatest international side of the 1950s and perhaps the greatest still of all time. Spain, I sense, hoped somehow that their years of apparent “underachievement” gave them a mysterious wind at their backs this time, and their early form reinforced the sense within the press that here was a side – unlike England! – that had really arrived meaning business.

It was all too easy for France, once Vieira decided to involve himself. So poor were France in their first two matches that their excellence since has gone almost unnoticed. And now they face Brazil, riding a different wind from Spain’s, one made up of hype and luck and the dearest hopes of commentators who think nothing’s changed since 1970 if only we stare at Brazil long enough and hard enough.

Do they have a defence capable of stopping Thierry Henry? Do they have one capable of stopping Sylvain Wiltord, for that reason.. and who wil come out on top, Ronaldinho, who is having to carry his team at present, or Zidane, who, unexpectedly, turns out after all to have capable lieutenants on all sides?

A semi-final against France would suit England very well. England have the mentality to take on the French. If they get past Portugal, it will have been the ugliest game of the tournament, and the last thing they deserve, after a tournament spent facing ten men behind the ball in every game, is the Valhalla of Brazil. France represent a chance to cut free and play..

But that’s all football history talk, and football history is bunk. So, Portugal beat England messily and with controversy and ill feeling. Brazil beat France with the help of the referee, just as such help handed them past Ghana. And win the World Cup, in a one-sided Final against Germany, because football history dictates that few South American sides win in the Northern Hemisphere and it also insists that the host nation lift the trophy more often than not. And England’s four years of mediocrity begin, and begin as ever, trophyless.

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Histrionics, Hair Gel.. and a Quarter Final From Hell

Posted on 27 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

You’d have asked for anyone save Portugal.

It’s one for the remaining band who believe that the lesser the opposition, the better our chances. For the rest of us, we can only hope that England stir themselves, and trust in something more interesting for the semi-final.

Brace yourselves for a week of the following stories on the back page, none of which are likely to do anything other than sour your day:

  • “Big Phil” would have dropped Beckham
  • “Big Phil” has “outthought” Eriksson twice: will he do it again?
  • “Big Phil” could teach Eriksson a thing or two about substitutions and inspiring his players (we’ll forget about Portugal’s lack of penetration against a weak Dutch side, and the way Scolari’s players lost their discipline completely in the second half..
  • Various comparisons between Scolari and Steve McClaren, all of which will run in Scolari’s favour
  • Eriksson should drop Beckham/Hargreaves/Robinson!!/Terry/anyone else, but won’t because he lacks the football knowledge and nous of the sweating tabloid hack in question.

It’s going to be a horribly ugly game, in what has suddenly become an ugly World Cup – Wimbledon can’t come soon enough.

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England and the World Cup: A Longer View

Posted on 26 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

I’m not going to enter into any detailed analysis here, but these are some pointers as to why I think England have only one World Cup star on their shirts:

  • England’s best teams have almost always peaked outside World Cup years – the 46-48 side, the 60-61 team, and the 75-78 side that Revie never picked are just 3 examples.
  • Although the press and the fans prioritise World Cup success, the FA haven’t on the whole, preferring to see the England team as an enjoyable adjunct to the real business of maintaining the best grass-roots game in the world. Choosing the England manager has been a case of finding someone who will take care of far more than just the international side – one reason among others for the appointment of Bobby Robson and Ron Greenwood; similarly, the non-appointment of Brian Clough.
  • For the first half of the twentieth century – the half that gave Italy two of their three World Cups, and Uruguay one half of theirs – England were quite correct to focus on the Home Championship as their source of international competition. Between 1900 and 1920, other international matches – such as the Olympic tournaments – were far too one-sided. England, with a fully-fledged league system behind them, got into double figures frequently, and ended up sending an amateur team to the Olympics just to make things more competitive. Between 1920 and 1950, things were a little closer – but when Italy brought their “World Champions” to England, they resorted to thuggish tactics simply to keep England in sight. After the war, England became far more involved in international football, but before 1950 the story was much the same – easy victory. It’s forgotten that England’s defeats abroad – to Spain, for example – were defeats for what was almost certainly a badly hung-over team who were treating the trip as a holiday yet playing hyped-up super-motivated opposition for whom the game was the highlight of their lives.
  • What’s seen as England’s fallow period since 1970 was in fact very short – lasting perhaps from 1972 and the Netzer game at Wembley, to 1977 and the defeats to Italy. It’s a period coinciding with Ramsey’s decline and Revie’s failure to pick a team from perhaps the best generation of skilful, inspiring footballers England’s had since the War. The anxieties and lack of confidence that were born in that period are still with us today, and are reflected in the bizarre, Cassandra-esque reporting of international matches. I believe that England teams have, until Eriksson, played at 5-10% below their real ability as a consequence of this. By contrast, our success in European club football in the 1970s raised confidence and expectations to such a degree that a mediocre side such as the Aston Villa of 81-2, or the talent-limited Forest teams of 78-9, could expect to win European cups and do so, repeatedly.

It sounds strange to say it, but behind all of this is an unexpected truth: we have cared less than other countries about winning the World Cup. Mexico have gone home already, but their team had six months together to prepare; we negotiated an extra week. During tournaments, there’s a lot of huffing and puffing in the media, but the fact is that we can put up with not winning – and that’s why we don’t.

Four years ago, Clive Woodward decided that nothing was going to stand in the way of England’s rugby men winning the ultimate title, and that was the beginning of a quite extraordinary and utterly focussed effort that just – by the skin of the teeth – succeeded. Such was the mental energy expended that the side have since gone into colossal decline, and have no chance of defending their title next year. Likewise, the England cricket team won the Ashes through what appears now as a moment of decision – that it mattered at the ultimate level to win, and it mattered now. Since then… it’s all gone away. In both rugby and cricket teams, the vital players have been missing through injury almost ever since.

If England win – and they seem to have a similar outlook to the rugby and cricket teams – you can almost guarantee four years of total mediocrity afterwards. You can probably guarantee it anyway – Erickson’s successor has been chosen, not to win trophies, but to facilitate the development of a new generation of English coaches. It needs doing, but it’s not a goal shared by the press or the fans.

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World Cup 2006: First Round Review

Posted on 25 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

A little late, perhaps, as I’ve already seen German gamesmanship sneak them past Sweden in their second-round tie, and I’ve already watched (yet another) epic Argentine victory, this time over an excellent Mexico. That match, at any rate, lived up to the extraordinary standards that the tournament’s set so far, and my worries that things would now settle down into a kind of football we’re all too accustomed to have been temporarily assuaged.

I no longer see England as potential winners of the tournament, but that’s not really their fault: they haven’t played badly. Indeed, finding out how they have played requires detective work: there have been no match reports in the press, and in their place we’ve been given a series of tired re-rehearsals of each writer’s individual gripes, whether those be over Beckham or over the Swedish coach or over the non-selection of any number of what you might consider worthies…

No, my doubts about England are less reasons than celebrations: for once, everyone has turned up at the World Cup. The last to check in were France. As I gloried in the M40 sunshine on Friday evening, over my blowtorching sunroof the radio gave me Henry and Viera, finally, being there; I’d almost given up. For the French, this is very much their last hurrah. Really, their matches should be senior tour exercises, full of the skills men still have in old age, careless, tension-free and with all that mugging to camera. You almost expect to see Jack Charlton there, feigning annoyance at yet another yellow card. And then you do… Yet, they are here, and not in the sense that the Rolling Stones are here, or the Eagles.. Most tournaments have perhaps two teams who show the kind of limitless, exultant promise that we’ve seen pouring off at least seven sides this time. England aren’t going to fail because they don’t produce what we expect of them – they’ll lose simply because everyone else is absolutely turning it on: we didn’t expect it, and it’s marvellous.

I’ve already said that my team of the first round was the Ivory Coast, and that remains the case, but Ghana have shown the same intent, the determination to be a proper team at a proper World Cup with proper ambition. There was a decision to be made by the subSaharan African sides – were they going to be the energetic, naive, skilful sides that cameo every four years, patronised by Pele and wearisome English commentators, or.. and they’ve taken the second option. And the psychological effect on the viewer – on this viewer – is considerable: if Togo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, contain more of these intelligent, committed people, if they have millions of the kind who have played with such pride and discipline in Germany, then – if it’s not too much of a change of subject – certain negative opinions about the future of their continent can be revised. I’ll say it again, it’s been a magnificent tournament.

The most interesting writing on the tournament hasn’t come from the press, but the Independent‘s having a good 2006. Isn’t that just extraordinary? The closest modern equivalent would be a discovery of cutting-edge investigative reporting in Weekly World News. Liberal intelligence survives in the Independent, in their own little Brigadoon in the back pages. I fear that mentioning it may cause it to blink out of existence and become as if it never were. The best football blogs haven’t been in the expected places, either; the first of my choices would recoil at the very idea of having provided excellent coverage, but that’s the beauty of it; the second has done his best work away from his normal base, but both are worth chasing up. Some existing football blogs have produced joint efforts – see what you think of this one.

But this is all very well: England are playing Ecuador this afternoon, and what of it? And it’s another rejigged side, and what of that? Well…. I’d rather it had been Germany: England don’t need yet another “relatively easy path” through a tournament, as the team responds best to the kind of stimulation famous opposition provides. But Ecuador are a better side than Germany, and their best players have had a week’s rest. England are up against a real challenge, and one camouflaged by an unfashionable flag and the inability of our slow, slow media to outrun the guinea pig stories. Erickson won’t be fooled: some of his players will be, and the commentators certainly will be.

The rejigged team is not a new formation – don’t believe the papers there: something very similar was used in the warm-ups immediately before the tournament. Without Owen, this is very much the side I’d play, but I’d wish to God I could pick Neville.

It’s going to be terribly hard to win today. It’s going to be terribly hard listening to England – listening to the English – undergoing the experience. Time for a stroll up Port Meadow, where there are no radios or televisions, and just enough riverside path and ruined Nunnery to last me the 140 minutes plus penalties.

If you want me, I’ll be in the Perch.

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World Cup 2006: Watching As Though It’s England

Posted on 14 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

Reading the almost universally stupid write-ups of England v Paraguay on Sunday morning, I wondered whether I’d been at the same game as these journalists. Most depressing was the sheer determination on the part of these men that every single prejudice they’d been peddling about England in the run-up to the tournament would be illustrated by the match. So, Owen was completely out of sorts, Beckham faded out of the game, Sven’s substitutions were hopelessly conservative, he himself sat emotionless on the bench, and so on…

Rather than rehash arguments I’ve already made about why I disagree with this set of views, I’ve been conducting my own little experiment. I’ve been watching the other top sides – as though they were England. I’ve sat through matches featuring Holland, Argentina, Italy, Portugal and Brazil, and I’ve demanded of these sides the same standards as we demand of England.

I’ve been commentating in my head, too. This is something we all do as boys – running with a tennis ball at our feet in the playground, intoning “Dalglish” (usually). But my year at school was unusually lacking in football talent. My teacher stood at the side of the tarmac, as the running ball pulled a comet’s tail of boys around with it. As we trooped off at the end, he smiled beautifully at us and declared “I should thank you boys. I’m going to be laughing all weekend at what I’ve just seen. You all think you’re superstars, but you’re all rubbish.” Thirty years later, John Motson has the same opinion of England; if at any stage they aren’t actually threatening the opposition goal, he thinks it’s us letting the other team into the game, or the opposition causing us trouble, all of which he intones at us in the notes normal men usually reserve for when they’re providing a voiceover for footage of a natural disaster.

So, as I say, I’ve been commentating in my head, applying the Motson standard to our principal rivals in the tournament. How do you think they got on?

Argentina: Completely failed to cope with bright, brave Ivorian attacking. How will they deal with a real attacking force, like Holland or Italy? Hyped playmaker Riquelme can only perform when protected by two other midfielders, and then only in fits and starts; he’s cramping his team’s style and should be dropped – yesterday’s man, and only his close relationship with the coach can explain his continued presence in the side. Argentina’s superstar attackers couldn’t live up to their billing, either; midfielder Saviola was his side’s saviour, after Crespo’s scrappy opener. The entire team faded badly, and the second half was almost entirely Ivorian; but for some neglectful refereeing, the Africans would have come away with a shock victory. As it is, questions have to be asked about Argentina’s selection policy and its reliance on established players who may feel they have nothing left to prove.

The Czech Republic were gifted an early goal, but failed to build on their advantage against the minnows of the United States. McBride was always a worry in attack for the Americans, and if the Czechs are to provide a serious challenge for the cup, they are going to have to look at ways for their midfield to protect their defence. Without bright young prospect Rosicky’s enthusiasm, and shocking US defending, the Czechs would have been exposed for what they are – a flat-track side, short on creativity and adventure. Fading badly in the second half, they were flattered by a 3-0 scoreline, and their supporters will be concerned.

Samuel Kuffour is the toast of Italy as his second-half howler got the Azzuri out of jail. His Ghana team took full advantage as Italy faded badly after the break, and only poor finishing and the late error gave the European team – strongly tipped before the tournament despite recent scandals at the Italian FA – a narrow victory. Italy’s strikers lacked bite and penetration, soon resorting to hopeful shots from long range, whilst only Pirlo from the midfield showed any ambition or creativity. Italy take the points – but this is a game for the underdogs to relish, and they’ll take confidence from this into their next match.

Portugal’s golden generation ran into the sand two years ago, and coach Scolari’s failure to refresh the squad was cruelly exposed as they struggled to beat World Cup outsiders Angola by a solitary early goal. Poor substitutions compounded a weak initial selection as Angola took the initiative in the first half and kept it for the remainder of the game, leaving the Portuguese to rely on Figo’s ancient legs and occasional breaks out of defence. Out of favour Cristiano Ronaldo came closest for the favourites, hitting the bar. Ronaldo should be the hub of this team – but he will be made to wait by Scolari, unless player power can be made to tell.

The fear expressed before the tournament that Holland were a one-man team proved all too true against a brave Serbian attacking effort. But that one man isn’t Ruud Van Nistelrooy, or glory-hunting winger Arjen Robben. The Dutch hero was ageing keeper Van Der Saar, whose series of excellent saves kept Holland in the match and sustained their slim hopes as least as long as the second group game. Serbia expected to come away with nothing from the match, but as their invention and endeavour took a grip on the encounter, they must have rued a string of near misses and will go into their second game with a new confidence. Holland left many excellent players at home – and rookie coach Van Basten’s dizzy confidence, so visible at the ceremony that announced his squad, will have been replaced with regret as his unbalanced, immature squad flailed and fumbled against second-rate opposition. The second round is the best they can hope for.

Brazil, given the plum evening kick off and mediocre Croatian opposition, failed to take advantage as their unmotivated side fell back on deep defence and sheer luck against the invention and courage of their opponents, so ably led by Dario Prso. As Prso poured down the left wing for the nth time, sending the Brazilian defence into panic, he must have wondered why he is left plying his trade in the slums of Glasgow while the likes of Ronaldo, Adriano, Kaka and Robinho, anonymous against him last night, bestride European club football. Only Ronaldinho showed any intent for Brazil, and he is fast becoming their Rooney figure. If anything happens to him, Brazil’s hopes go with him on this performance. Ronaldo, obviously behind the pace, sullen and uninterested, was pulled off far too late in the game, showing yet again this coach’s overreliance on star players living on past glories. Kaka was reduced to hopeful long-range shots, and it was one of these, gifted him by a rare Croatian defensive lapse, that led somewhat fortuitously to the only goal of the game.

This is a very long way round to making a simple point: our commentators and journalists are being ridiculously negative about England and about England’s performance. I grant that British culture values pessimism and the Cassandra approach as signs of intelligence, but frankly they aren’t justified this time – just as none of my reviews above quite capture the essence of the matches in question (the Brazil report isn’t far off, though; I thought they were shocking, apart from Ronaldinho).

Digital viewers of the BBC’s coverage can now opt for an audio setting called something like “Match Sound”, which cuts out the commentary altogether. I’ve a fondness for Alan Green’s atmosphere-multiplying style of coverage, so I won’t be using it – but, if you want to know how England are really getting on, it might be the one you want.

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World Cup 2006: The Secrets of Brazil’s Success – Correctly, For Once

Posted on 13 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

The actual commentary on Brazil’s game with Croatia tonight will be the usual “samba” rubbish, I’m sure, but this magnificent BBC article on the background to Brazilian football adds some balance at least.

So, what lies behind the Brazilian brilliance?

1. Priority:

Journalist Alex Bellos, author of Futebol – A Brazilian Way of Life, believes it was also due to the relatively late abolition of slavery at the end of the 19th century, and a lack of positive symbols.

Whatever the reason, Brazil very early “recognised football in our future and tradition and (as) our opportunity to communicate to the world that we are powerful,” says 1994 World Cup winner Leonardo.

“In the 1930s, we started to organise a team to be competitive in the World Cup, and the 1950s were the beginning of this big dream to make Brazil the best international team in the world,” he added.

2. Detailed Planning and Preparation:

Losing the final to Uruguay in 1950 was viewed as a national tragedy, but it only heightened the desire to win.

And it led to a little-known aspect of Brazilian football. Believing they had let themselves down through personal weakness and a lack of research, the national side came to see comprehensive preparation and innovative tactics as crucial to success. Contrary to the popular belief that Brazilian teams are defensively naive, the idea of the modern back four originated in the 1958 World Cup-winning team.

Through a careful evolution of the way they played, Brazil continued to have a tactical lead until 1970.

3. Unique Training

In Brazil children learn football in a very different way from their European counterparts.

There are no leagues or competitive matches for young children – such a concept is seen as likely to hinder a player’s creative impulses.

“The children play a lot but it’s always very free,” says Leonardo. Parreira agrees: “We don’t put them in a cage, say ‘you have to be like this’. We give them some freedom until they are ready to be coached.”

4. Sheer Hard Work:

Brazil’s success, though, stems from more than talent and the freedom to express it – behind Ronaldinho’s gleaming smile lies hours of hard work.

“The English academy system is one where players are training for just four hours a week,” says Brazilian football expert Simon Clifford.

“Compare that to Ronaldinho when he was a 16-year-old with Gremio, where he would have been training for up to 20 hours a week. ”

Parreira adds: “In Brazil players are fabricated, they are produced. “They come to the clubs when they are 10-12 and then they start in categories according to age.

“There are no more players from the beach or from the street. This is a myth, a legend. They are built, grown in the clubs.”

More on Simon Clifford here.

One of the reasons why many people believe than an African nation will win the World Cup in the near future is the fact that “street football”, from where they think the natural creative players come, is still predominant there. I’ve seen two African sides so far at this World Cup – Ivory Coast, and Ghana – and rather than remind me of Brazil, their physical strength, bravery, endeavour and fair play have reminded me far more of British sides from the 1950s. The Brazilians are in no danger of losing their preeminence, if only for the thoroughly bad reason that the Europeans are keen to hold on to their Copecobana fantasies, to hug football’s version of Orientalism to their chest and keep it there.

I’d keep one eye on Simon Clifford, if only for the short while until he really takes over British footballing consciousness. Which he will.

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Statistics Telling a Sad Story

Posted on 12 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

Because England have only the one World Cup to their name, there’s a tendency to exaggerate how far behind the best we’ve been since the end of the Second World War. It’s exaggerated because England’s greatest sides have always peaked in between tournaments – the 46-49 side being the principal victims.

But sometimes far worse things than bad timing have placed a truly world-class England side in obscurity. Look at these statistics from the second half of the 1950s.
England results between their 4-2 defeat by Uruguay at the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, and defeat to Yugoslavia in May 1958:

Won: 20 Drawn: 4 Lost: 4

England results between May 1958 and May 1960:

Won: 4 Drawn: 10 Lost: 7

On 6 February 1958, Manchester United’s aircraft bringing them home from Yugoslavia crashed at Munich Airport, killing – amongst many others – England back Roger Byrne, England midfielder Duncan Edwards and England centre forward Tommy Taylor.

So much is said about the Busby Babes that this side of the accident is lost. In essence, the the heart was torn out of one of the most successful England sides of modern times. Manchester United took five years to recover. England had to await the emergence of Jimmy Greaves.. star of another mispeaking England side.

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One Lost World Cup or Two?

Posted on 08 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

It’s my somewhat unfashionable opinion that England had the makings of a truly wonderful side in the ’70s – if they’d wanted to have one enough. (And that’s not necessarily a pejorative statement, by the way). Consider the following, all of whom would have been 30 or under in 1978 (Osgood would have been 31):

  • Stan Bowles, 5 caps
  • Tony Currie, 17 caps
  • Charlie George, 1 cap (subst. famously at half-time)
  • Rodney Marsh, 9 caps
  • Alan Hudson, 2 caps
  • Duncan Mackenzie, 0 caps
  • Peter Osgood, 4 caps
  • Bob Latchford, 12 caps
  • Frank Worthington, 8 caps

“Lifestyle” is the word in the background here, but even so, this is bordering on the ridiculous, isn’t it? Take Hudson’s 2 caps – on his debut, he destroyed West Germany and we won 2-0. You can’t do that kind of thing twice, and we only won 5-0 in his second game against Cyprus, so of course, he had to be dropped thereafter.

There won’t have been any consistent reason for the exclusion of such spectacular footballers from the national side – I expect it was a matter of expediency, match by match, rather than any deliberate policy. But 1974, 1978, came and went, and you can’t go back to change things after it’s all over.

There’s a bitter-sweet picture in my head of Clough leading England out for the 1974 World Cup Final with a team composed of many of these players. Clough wasn’t considered as a successor to Ramsey, something that bewilders me (he was turned down, famously, in 1977 after Revie’s undignified departure). Fantasy, of course. But add to that the success of British sides (Rangers and Celtic too of course) in European club competition, and were would have been the national footballing inferiority complex we’re still trying to overcome today?

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World Cup 2006: England’s Forgotten Captain

Posted on 02 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

Simon Barnes is one of the very best writers in sport today – one of the best writers in journalism altogether, and his Times article today about David Beckham is well worth reading in full.

On his walk around the England captain, Barnes touches on a few themes of my own:

The myth has taken hold: Beckham is past it, he’s only in the team because of his occult hold on Sven-Göran Eriksson. Any real man would have dropped him years ago. A shadow of his former self — and he was overrated then.

Three of the past four big tournaments have been Beckham events. As we build up to the World Cup finals, Beckham has become the forgotten man of English football. In all the fuss about Rooney, Gerrard and so forth, Tuesday’s fizzing, curling crosses — echt Beckham — were scarcely noticed.

That “myth” he’s referring to there is one of those stories that emerges from our media every time England don’t win by three or more goals. It’s been Beckham’s misfortune to have turned in a number of very memorable performances for England – notably the one against Greece in 2002 that ensured England’s qualification for the World Cup. Every time he is merely alright in the shirt, he comes in for a great deal of frankly unjustified criticism. You don’t hear calls for Gerrard to be dropped, for example, but can you remember the last time he really turned it on for the national side?

Like all myths, there is just a hint of something in this one, however.

When Beckham went to Real Madrid, it was clear that he had in mind playing alongside the greatest players of the day and proving himself their equal. The goal was to evolve into an influential playmaker in the centre of the park, a Zidane – and to be mentioned in the same breath as Zizou, as Figo, as Ronaldo, as Raoul.

It didn’t happen. Beckham fell just short. It wasn’t a failure: he of all the galacticos is the one who has been good for the side in their recent troubled times. His astonishing passing, unmatched talent with the dead ball, huge workrate and never-say-die attitude have been an example to others.

My suspicion is that falling just short like that led to Beckham experiencing something of a loss of meaning for a while, a personal crisis of some sort, which I would place in Winter 2003 and Spring 2004. It was a matter of coming to terms with who he was and wasn’t; where his career was going, and where it turned out it was not going to go. I think he’s over it, now. It was worth the attempt. Barnes puts it well:

It was at that moment that Beckham realised, and his most serious admirers accepted, that he would never be great. Not great as in Zidane, anyway. What people failed to understand is that Beckham did not therefore become a poor player. He just showed that he was less good than he — than we — had hoped.

And so, inevitably, he contracted Henman’s Syndrome. This is the punishment we visit on those who have made us hope too much. Henman was at one stage No 4 in the world, but he never won Wimbledon and so he is regarded as a miserable failure. He was very good indeed, but we wanted him to be still better. As a result, he is reviled as a loser.

I don’t believe that Henman has ever come in for anything like what Beckham’s had to put up with. Even with Henman at his excellent peak, Wimbledon was always a matter of hope, not expectation.

I think Beckham is over it all, now, and is playing with a new confidence in the abilities he has got, a new freedom and an evident contentment. Barnes puts it like this:

But Beckham the Not-Quite-Great has been keeping the faith and looked, to be frank, in the form of his life on Tuesday. He looked so full of fitness, confidence and good cheer that next thing he’ll be trying to get his job back as penalty-taker. (Absolutely not, the nation’s nerves won’t stand it.)

There comes a time in the life of many great athletes when they cast off care. They come to terms with their own failures and their own successes and they start to play sport in a mood of demob happiness. Ah, sod it, they say. And sometimes, as a result, they find their very best form at the last possible moment.

Ed Smith, the Middlesex batsman, has written eloquently on the cliché of “it’s all about who wants it most”. Frequently, he says, the prize actually goes to the one who wants it least, the one who has cast off the desperation to succeed and simply plays the ball.

Aside from that last bit, that’s about right. Ed Smith is right about the problems an excessive desire to win can bring to athletes who perform best on instinct. The current climate in the British press is for an end to the contained confidence of the Erickson era, an end to treating our players like adults, and a return to the old days of “passion”. “Passion”, if you’re wondering, is a kind of headless-chicken approach to the game where “if you want it more” you win despite your lack of skill. It’s psychobabble, and it’s wrong.

The freedom Ed Smith refers to is not a result of abandoning the desire to win. It has different components to that. I think there are four.

  1. You do actually have to want to win. Otherwise, rather than find freedom in your game, you simply won’t try. There are brilliant footballers out there for whom the game is just a living – they don’t like football much, and don’t really mind what happens. If you ever wondered why there are some evident geniuses playing in the lower leagues, perhaps for Welsh clubs, that’s why. Just wanting to win is not enough, though. Ask Sunderland, a side who never gave up on a match for all that they put in the worst season ever seen in the Premiership. Plenty of passion – but no belief, and above all, no skill.
  2. You have to believe that winning is a possibility. If you go into a match that you want to win but don’t feel it’s possible, far from freeing you from the burden, you’ll find it weighs you down – look what happens to teams who go two goals behind early in a match to a good side; they slump.
  3. Once you believe that you’re in with a chance, you need to be willing to fail. You accept that there are limits to what you can do – you accept, really accept, that you’ll get it wrong from time to time, and feel OK about that. You know and accept that bad luck, weather and referees intervene. If you make a mistake, you’re still a superb player, and the next time you attempt something, you’ve a real chance of pulling it off. Beckham’s successful free kick against Greece in 2002 was his fifth of the game: he’d missed the other four. Compare Shaun Wright-Phillips’s slumped shoulders after he missed a couple of sitters early in the match against Holland.
  4. You have to be comfortable with yourself as a winner. Tricky for Brits, this one: we do love a gallant loser. And natural winners aren’t always pleasant people to be around – ask any top athletics coach about his “role models”. Beckham, Owen and Gary Neville aside, I don’t see many of these types in the England side, and it’s a worry for the World Cup.

But in any case, those are the conditions necessary for real, free, confident play. Beckham seems to have found his way there now. Let’s hope Gerrard, Owen and co follow him into it this summer.

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The Nearly Men: England’s 1982 World Cup

Posted on 01 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

Most people think that the closest England has come to winning the World Cup since 1966 was 1990. It’s obvious, surely – we lost only in the semi-final, and then on penalties. Think back to Chris Waddle’s vicious screamer just going the wrong side of the bar, and he looking at once so tall and yet so crushed as he walked back to his team mates. 1990, then, is the closest we’ve come. Right? Wrong.

Not 1990. There are footballing and psychological reasons to count that team out. In footballing terms, only truly outrageous luck brought England to the semi-final at all. We played badly in every game except for that match with West Germany. Against Belgium, we were unable to escape our own half so comprehensively outclassed were we, and had Cameroon kept their discipline, they too would have seen us off. Most predictions for the scoreline in that semi-final were in the order of 4-0 to the Germans, and reasonably so.

There were very talented players in the 1990 team – Lineker, Beardsley, Gascoigne, Walker, Waddle and Barnes would all make the current squad. But there was no sense of development since 1986, and the team went out to the 1990 tournament more in hope than in expectation. And it just wasn’t a time to win. Pete Davies chose the title of his book well. All Played Out sums up more than just football.
I think that they were lucky men, not nearly men. No, my nearly men come from the generation immediately before that one. Stand forward Ron Greenwood’s England, the undefeated team of 1982. Here’s how they lined up.

Look at the dates of birth! Mills, Shilton, Corrigan and Clemence all 1940s children. The baby of the squad, if you could ever imagine him in that role, was Terry Butcher, born in December 1958, and therefore 23 at the time of the tournament. This was a mature squad, but a seriously capable one. Imagine having to choose your goalkeeper from Shilton, Clemence and Corrigan. What about midfield? Bryan Robson is there, and so is Steve Coppell, a man who had he not had to retire at 27 through injury would have been considered one of England’s greatest ever players. Glenn Hoddle is there. So is Ray Wilkins.

So are Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking, but I’m going to return to them in a moment.

In charge of this tough, experienced but cultured squad is Ron Greenwood, a manager who shares with Erickson a media image that was far from the truth about him. It’s little known that, in the early 1960s, Greenwood was seen as one of the most creative and capable coaches in world football – and that he came close to getting the England job that went to Alf Ramsey. While Ramsey took England to the World Cup in 1966, and then went on to build the greatest England side to go to a tournament in 1970 (there have been greater England sides than that one – but not in tournament years – look at the 1961 England team, or the 46-48 era, or the side Revie could have chosen to pick in 1975 to see what I mean) Greenwood was building a team at little West Ham that would win both FA Cup and European Cup Winner’s Cup, huge and wholly under-rated achievements. Moore, Peters and Hurst were proteges.

Greenwood was in semi-retirement when the England call came. His appointment, rumours say, was in part intended merely to cheer up this depressed, sensitive man, and to reward his long service at the FA. Some way to cheer up a man – and some way to reward him. If England managers had any sense, they’d be dragged onto the throne struggling for all they’re worth.

It’s said that he shouldn’t have got the job, that Clough was the man. And Clough was the great manager. But the trouble with the England job is that there is always some genius coach ready to ride to the rescue if only the FA would see the light (I’m borrowing Bobby Robson’s choice of words here)..

And qualifying for 1982 was famously shambolic. We weren’t supposed to lose to Norway back then. With hindsight, that game was the first sign that Norway were producing some very good players, that Scandinavian football as a whole was on the rise. After all, 1982 was the year a Swedish side won the UEFA Cup. Coached by a certain Sven Goran Erickson..

But qualify we did, and after the failures to do so in 1974 and 1978, anyone who was around at the time will remember the sheer determination and drive that went with the team to Spain.

It had to – because we had tough opponents. Starting with France. This was the first great French side since the War – the team of Platini, Giresse, Bossi, Six, and Tigana. They’d win the 1984 European Championship, and their remnants would finish third in the 1986 World Cup. In 1982, they were disgracefully beaten by West Germany (in their eventual semi-final) and hampered further by some quite incredible refereeing. Against such stardust England fielded:

Shilton, Mills, Sansom, Thompson, Butcher, Robson, Coppell, Francis, Mariner, Rix, Wilkins (Phil Neal came on for Sanson in the 90th minute).

Note: players in that squad make up nearly half of the top ten most capped England internationals.

What do you think happened? Well, England won 3-1, taking the lead after 27 seconds.

The team followed up this wonderful start with a 2-0 victory over Czechoslovakia, keeping the same side but replacing Robson with Hoddle after 46 minutes. That win meant qualification. and a relatively leisurely 1-0 win over minnows Kuwait secured the top spot. It was a first round to be proud of.

But these were, as I have said, nearly men. And, nearliest of all, were Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking. Both men had played decisive roles in the qualifying tournament, but both came into the Finals themselves with injuries. You may already have noticed their absence from the first round sides.

Both were hard to replace, and it speaks volumes for the likes of Graham Rix and Paul Mariner that they had successfully stepped up. For all their efforts, however, this was not an ideal scenario.

Keegan was perhaps just at the end of his peak in 1982. He’d been England’s best player for most of the previous decade, but his international career was held back by the team’s dramatic post-’73 loss of confidence. Keegan was a charisma player, the England captain, and filled that role in a way that hasn’t been matched since. The incredible enthusiasm that radiated off him masked an inner brittleness, a need for outside approval, but all that made him justifiably feared as an opponent.

Brooking was and is steadier in temperament. As a player, the “gentleman” tag masked the skill that only Hoddle in the 1982 squad exceeded, skill that was matched by an unusual sensitivity to the idea of “team” and fitting with the players around him. It was a Brooking goal that got England to Spain, in the end. Not coincidentally, Brooking was one of the last of Greenwood’s original West Ham team (Martin Peters was still playing for Norwich City in the First Division as late as 1980) and his absence through injury removed from England a crucial slice of Greenwood that would prove fatal in the Second Round of the World Cup.

Never in a position to take it easy, England were up against Germany and Spain in a round-robin group whose winners would take part in the semi-final. In their first-round success, it was significant that four of the team are among England’s ten most capped players. The statistic that mattered in the Second Round is that none of the team are among England’s top ten goalscorers. Indeed, only two – Robson and the injured Keegan – are in the top twenty.

England scintillated against West Germany, with another unchanged side. On particularly good form that day was Steve Coppell, putting on perhaps his best ever performance in his shortened England career. Anyone who saw the match in person or on television will still have clear mental images of him outpacing the German defence time and again, panicking with accurate crosses. West Germany dug in, but could consider 0-0 a lucky escape. Not since 1975 and Alan Hudson’s epic had we so bullied our dearest rivals.

Unfortunately, with three teams in the group, it was impossible for matches to be played simultaneously. West Germany’s 2-1 win over Spain meant therefore that England had a target. Beat Spain by at least two goals, or go home. So, a 2-0 win or better, against the hosts, in Madrid, in the Bernebeu Stadium.
In the 64th minute, with the match goalless, Rix and Woodcock were withdrawn, and England’s nearliest men, Keegan and Brooking, finally stepped onto the pitch at the World Cup Finals.

Neither were properly fit. But it was the right move for Greenwood to make, and how agonisingly close it came to coming off. Keegan missed a header he would surely normally have buried; Brooking too failed with a chance that the fit man would have taken without thinking. England dominated the match, yet again – as they had in every game of their World Cup.

0-0. Five matches, four of them against serious opposition. No defeats. One goal conceded, six scored. All this from a side that was missing its two most influential players until the last thirty minutes of their tournament, the two players who, had they been fit, would have seen England through to the semi-final against a French team they’d already comprehensively beaten.

The Nearly Men? I think so.

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