World Cup 2006: Watching As Though It’s England

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.

10 Replies to “World Cup 2006: Watching As Though It’s England”

  1. This was very funny.

    I’d add two things:

    1. Brazil get much the same coverage. From Motty and Lawrenson’s commentary you would have expected that it was traditional for Ronaldhino to score from the kick-off with a back-heel. When he didn’t, they were moaning almost non-stop. I didn’t think Brazil were as bad as you suggest – I’d been saying Roberto Carlos was useless but I thought he played extremely well.

    2. The English press is not consistently negative. At other times it is ludicrously over-optimistic. I think it’s a symptom of having so many pages to fill nowadays. You need to say something so say something extreme.

    3. I guess you realise you can have Alan Green on Sky Digital as well as no commentary? I find it over-commentated.

  2. Yes, I’ve been opting for Greeny where possible. Thus far he’s not had the luck to be present for any of the many good moments of the tournament thus far, which is a shame both for him and for us. I notice that if you have his commentary on the tv and the radio at the same time, the radio version is about one and a half seconds behind..

  3. The manager has had two long-term probs to solve. The left wing problem he’s solved with Cole, J. The incompatibility of Lampard and Gerrard he hasn’t. He’s too prone to stick by unfit stars, but otherwise he does usually pick a squad of pretty much the best people available. People perhaps expect too much of a bunch of largely dim young men and a rather dull Swede.

  4. “Rather dull Swede”? You’ve been reading too many papers. The press think he’s dull because he’s Swedish and wears suits, and lack the imagination to look beyond those two facts or to recognise how well they’ve been handled over the last five years. As for “conservative”, their other fave piece of ill informed rubbish, I’ve addressed that elsewhere on the site.

  5. Perhaps I was over-influenced by the papers. But I did like the description of the attack he’s selected as consisting of a man with a broken foot, a man recovering from a broken foot, a boy who has to be in bed by seven, and a bean-pole. I rather like the bean-pole, and admit that the man with the broken foot is very good indeed, while his foot is unbroken. But it doesn’t seem the sharpest selection, which is why I think he’s been a bit dull.

  6. You are very, very wrong. The one defining factor in this game was that Paraguay played England’s reputation, rather than the team that actually took to the field. In short, they paid them far too much respect. The amazing, colossal Jose Chilavert argued the very same point after the game, calling the shapeless collection of technically incompetant white shirts the worst England side in 50 years. He was correct. Paraguay should have beaten England, as I thought they would, but they didn’t start trusting in their ability to tear their opponents apart by attacking them until it was too late. And as for Italy getting out of jail against Ghana, absolute fucking crap my friend. Ive just re-watched the whole game. True, the Italians had to work hard for their victory but they did so quite magnificantly against capable and physical opponents who would have beaten the English quite comfortably. Movement all over the pitch, invention, variation, relentlessly intelligent passing, comfortable classy defending, full-backs who attacked right until the end, Italy were everything England were not. The gulf between the two sides would genuinely take decades to narrow.

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