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.