Now you’re getting my opaque typographic titles. (Remember Essay1, Essay2, Essay3 at the South African World Cup?) The final group stats are now being carefully felt-tipped into my Guardian World Cup Guide. It’s like I’m ten years old again. When I was a boy, I was football crazy (hard to credit now that I am such a stranger to the leagues, but it’s ultimately down to a lack of available space in my brain and hours in my days). I made my own football quiz books, in which I challenged imaginary readers to name the first division club by a pencil drawing of its badge, or by its stadium, or nickname. I would do players’ name with letters removed and you had to fill in the blanks. I also collected whatever stickers or badges were on sale and diligently swapped them and stuck them in. I remember fondly a set of metal circular badges that came free with Esso petrol and were mounted on a stout card display. I rather expect one of you to now jump up and offer a scan of this long-lost heirloom.
The seemingly disgraceful, infantile and possibly mentally unstable behaviour of Luis Suárez – a very good footballer, whose rehabilitative PFA Player Of The Year award presentation keeps being looped in news reports – has cast an evil-chipmunk shadow across the tournament as we near the end of the groups. The Mexican ref didn’t see him mime sinking his teeth into the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in the 79th minute of their group game when the score stood at 0-0. Those of us watching in telly couldn’t believe we’d just seen what we thought we’d seen. (Not following club football, I didn’t realise Suárez had previous in this unpleasant area, although sub judice reports are being careful to put speechmarks around “biting”.)
Uruguay’s Diego Godín scored from a Suárez corner – oh, the irony! – before the dust of controversy had had time to settle, and an understandably aggrieved Italy were out. Chiellini pulled down his collar and displayed what looked like human man bitemarks but could have been from a large South American insect who fancied some Italian, and FIFA are investigating it, with the threat of a long ban hanging over Suárez’s baffled, squirrelly head. Amazing how a moment of madness can resonate so odorously across such a magnificent ocean of football.
Ouch. I have picked up on the larger narrative that Suárez went “from pariah to hero” with the PFA last year. I fear he’s just gone back to “pariah” – maybe he’ll be more comfortable there. Tensions run rampant in these high-stakes games. Italy – four-tiimes World Cup winners, of course, who only needed a measly draw to go through – were already a man down, after midfielder Claudio Marchisio was sent off for an upwards-studs incident (the same kind that would put Ecuador down to ten men in last night’s game against France). It’s hard to cheer on a plucky side like Uruguay when they have such a wild card in their pack.
Here’s Ecuador’s captain Antonio Valencia petulantly tearing off his armband on being sent off for pointing his boot in the wrong direction during a tackle. This transgression – an accident, potentially, but the same outcome in this black-and-white disciplinary case – effectively signed their return ticket, even though France were unable to get a single goal past spectacularly lanky goalie Alexander Dominguez, surely the man of the match.
His ability to deflect or absorb French shot after French shot was phenomenal, from Pogba, Benezema, Sissoko, Griezmann, Matuidi, even the cupcake-headed Giroud, the back of whose shirt looks like it might say Girls Aloud if you uncreased it. Where were all these goals we’ve grown used to?, we asked ourselves as we thrilled to Dominguez’s octopoid skill set. But his impermeability was not enough to secure the South Americans a win. Although, to be fair, Switzerland were simultaneously making Ecuador’s life increasingly difficult with each new goal Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri concurrently scored against the bottom-bound Honduras in Manaus.
BBC commentator Steve Wilson hid any hint of facetiousness when he pointed out that Ecuador had 30 seconds to score two goals before the end of injury time. Perhaps because it never seemed totally out of the question. (They had a Valencia to spare – relentless striker Enner – and he continually looked like a miracle might rest on the end of his foot.)
I’d pinned hopes on Nigeria, as I love to see African clubs in the knockout, and their high-energy 3-2 defeat to Argentina didn’t stop them qualifying, thanks to Bosnia beating Iran in parallel. They now face France next week, which will not be a walkover, as France are the side who couldn’t score a goal against ten Ecuadorians. With Cameroon (seemingly officially dubbed “the hapless Cameroon”) and Ivory Coast knocked out, and Ghana dependent on beating Portugal in Group G tonight, it may well be down to Nigeria and possibly Group H’s Algeria (if they can beat Russia like they beat South Korea) to carry that mighty continent’s hopes and dreams.
Nigeria certainly gave us our money’s worth against the fancied Argentina, with Ahmed Musa equalising within minutes of Lionel Messi’s opener, the first time in World Cup history that opposing sides have both scored within the first five minutes. That tells you something about the even match. Musa would open the second half with another goal, keeping things interesting. As with Ecuador’s Dominguez, Nigeria’s keeper Vincent Enyeama did them proud, keeping out Di Maria and Messi, most of the time. (And one of those that defied him was from a free kick.)
Messi, with the look of a young Liam Neeson, is an incredible chap. He’s scored four goals in three matches in Brazil. Not to dwell on England, who are long gone, but they lack a Messi, or a Balotelli, or a Neymar, or a Robben/Van Persie. One superhuman striker doesn’t make a team, I know that, but it helps. I’ve heard the word “talisman” a lot this tournament, and that’s the voodoo that counts, I think. Post-Beckham, England haven’t really had that magic.
Rooney is a singular force, with a unique, almost classical look about him and eyes to hypnotise, and the notches on the goalpost and caps to prove his usefulness. Minus the tabloid baggage (I note that the Daily Star has been desperately trying to sell Big Brother with headlines about current female inmates with spurious Rooney tales to tell), I feel sure I’d have greater affection for him if I supported Man United (Fabio Capello said he only played well in Manchester), but in terms of England, a yet-to-heal foot put him off form in his first World Cup in 2006, and he was red-carded in the quarter final. He’s always scored like a demon in the qualifiers (which of course I tend not to watch), but only scored in a World Cup for the first time last week. I was pleased for him. But with Gerrard and Lampard eyeing the garden centre now, England will surely have to rebuild from the ground up, and find a new talisman.
A word about Philip Neville (second from left) – maybe even “the hapless Philip Neville”. The BBC received 445 complaints from Daily Mail readers with nothing better to do about his co-commentary for England’s game against Italy, which was deemed “monotonous” and elicited the usual hoots of armchair derision. Well, being typically behind the curve, I’d wrongly assumed it was Morrissey’s long-lost cousin Danny Murphy who was wingman to Steve Wilson for last night’s Ecuador France match, and it was only at half-time that I was dissuaded of this incorrect assumption. It was a newly invigorated Phil Neville!
Surely it is the greatest compliment that I could pay his ability to learn and improve on the job to say that I didn’t realise it was him. Once the penny had dropped, I could hear him straining to enthuse and modulating his tone. He gave pertinent insight on cramp, too. Good on him, I say. He works in a snap-judgement culture, with Twitter acting as judge, jury, executioner and grave-dancer – and it’s not as if the TV channels don’t constantly promote social media interaction – so to take criticism on the chin and turn it to his advantage shows great character. (He was even funny about it on 5 Live: “I will get better – it was my first live gig and I’m just glad I helped everyone get to sleep back home!”)
Now, back to the action …