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.