Early on in this World Cup, while observing the fantastic local flags and banners hung over the balconies by far-flung fans at one of the stadiums, I saw two next to each other that seemed almost poetic, one in Gothic lettering, white on black, the other in the more traditional gaffer-tape style. They read: POTSDAM, PENGE. I loved the alliteration, and the exotic nature of both locales, each as faraway and foreign as the other. One the capital city of Brandenberg, with eerie echoes of the beginning of the Third Reich and the end of the war; the other a suburb of Bromley best known as the site of Crystal Palace Park and the TV transmitter. I don’t know if the fans who unfurled their local blankets that day were at the Free State Stadium yesterday in Bloemfontein, but I like to think they were.
So, England went out in a blaze of glory – not their own, but Germany’s, who could have pasted them even more comprehensively had David James not been almost uniquely on-message. I am English. I was born here. Not in Penge, but in Northampton, virtually the middle of England. Naturally, I feel a certain geographical affinity to the England team, and wish them well, every time. But you would not choose to follow them if you had the pick of the world’s teams, would you? I mean, truthfully? They are too often less than the sum of their parts. Imagined feuds with another European team do not help. The English fans have been world class. If their singing and support couldn’t get England through yesterday, nothing could. And we heard how plenty of them had had to trek miles to Bloemfontein to be there – possibly across open terrain where three lions might have eaten them – and show that unfailing support: the ones dressed as knights, the ones dressed as RAF fighter pilots … all doomed to be the ones clutching their heads, the traditional pose of the England football fan.
No point in me dissecting England’s performance, not from my position of well-meaning ignorance, but I picked up that Rooney never really caught fire, and that our defence was, once again, loose, and that the Germans outclassed our “Golden Generation” (not a phrase that Frank Lampard favours) with their just-over-21s. The final score, 4-1, was only a shadow of what it might have been, had David James not played so well. The sight of him swearing at his defenders from the goal line with that huge, toothy mouth of his will be the lasting image of England’s World Cup 2010.
The big talking point to come out of this, and yesterday evening’s Mexico Argentina game – which Argentina comfortably won, powered by Maradona bear hugs – is of technology, which Fifa seem unwilling to introduce into the grey area of whether goals have gone in or not, and whether a man was offside or not. The problem is not that the officials don’t always have the best view of whether a ball has gone over a line, or whether a man has gone offside, but that once they have made their call, they are not permitted to reverse it based upon what is commonly known in detective shows as “evidence.” We at home can see immediately whether Lampard’s goal was a goal or not, but the ref and his linesmen cannot. (Unless, of course, they show the replay on the big telly screen at the ground, which they did in the case of the offside Argentinian goalscorer Tevez. Not sure whether this is supposed to happen. It certainly democratises the in/out, offside/onside decision-making process, allowing 50,000 fans to officiate!) From what I can gather, EVERYBODY WHO WORKS IN FOOTBALL, EVEN FORMER SCEPTIC ALAN HANSEN now favours goal-line technology being introduced, except Sepp Blatter. Why? (Some of you will probably know better than me.)
Let us briefly praise Matthew Upson, who pulled one back for England when they were 2-0 down, using mostly his face (although he had earlier been part of the clay-footed defence that had let through Klose for the first German goal), and Frank Lampard for scoring the equaliser that never was, moments later. Apologists will forever claim that the disallowed second goal would have changed the course of the game (Rio Ferdinand said so in today’s calm and collected Sun – front page: YOU HAVE LET YOUR COUNTRY DOWN), but when you lose 4-1 – and might just as conceivably have lost 6-1 or 7-1 – it’s not about one goal, it’s about more than one goal. If anything, England showed most spark when they were 2-0 down, and never recovered that spark.
I wanted England to win, but only out of a random accident of birth and growing familiarity with the players and where they’re from and what they are supposed to be good at doing, and it was a shame that they lost instead. But I was not weeping into my beer. The worst thing that happened was that I stopped being interested in drinking beer. Which may have been because I had drunk too much of it in the afternoon. That, I guess, is England’s fault, as I had used their brief window of hope against Slovenia to instill in me the notion that this was a potential big moment – one worth breaking out the beer for. It wasn’t. It was a big moment for Germany, who look a strong side with their young men. And a big moment for the pro-technology lobby.
I found a surprising amount of support on Twitter last night when I suggested that I was sort of relieved that England were out and I could relax and just enjoy the rest of the world-class games. I do think this. It makes far more sense to follow your local team, or a team you grew up with, than the national side. Mind you, the more I see Fabio Capello speak, the more I wonder how the England players can ever really connect with him, or know what he actually wants. He can speak better English than I can speak Italian, but I am not paid £6million a year and I don’t work in Italy in a job that is all about communication.
On a more positive note, has anybody else found themselves mesmerised by the way the black tablets showing the score and the minutes within the BBC’s on-screen graphic seem to cast a constantly but slow moving reflection?