Essay8

I found myself in conversation about the World Cup with three proper football fans yesterday, courtesy of 6 Music, where I’ve been filling in on Steve Lamacq’s show all week. They’d set up a World Cup Roundtable, which didn’t mean we only reviewed records with Terry Venables or James Corden on them, but all three guests knew their football and their music (not a large squad to pick from). Damien Harris I’ve met on many occasions – Midfield General, founder of the mighty Skint records, sponsor for ten years of Brighton football club – but it was quite a change to have across the desk from me Mark Clemmit, of 5 Live and BBC1’s Football League Show, and Matt Lawrence, former Millwall and Crystal Palace defender, currently “between teams”. (Aged 36, he’s such a 6 Music kind of guy he was down on the new Laura Marling/Mumford & Sons single because he preferred Marling’s stripped-down original recording. And he knows more than me about The Gaslight Anthem’s first album.) I can gas about the World Cup with friends and family, who know my history, but here I was with a BBC football reporter and a professional league footballer. Would could possibly go wrong?

This wasn’t set up as a test, but it was one. Although we were talking mostly music on-air, talk was frequently of football off-air, and I think I held my own fairly well about the World Cup. I’m glad that the question of who I support didn’t come up, as my admission that I don’t have “a team” would have soured the mood. As it was, we chatted merrily about Gareth Southgate’s jumper and Robbie Earlie’s freebies and how disappointing so many of the big star players have been. I don’t watch the World Cup in order that I may conduct myself in a certain way in social situations – I watch it because I love it – but this was one, and I felt comfortable. I didn’t feel like a fraud, or the Jon Thompson “soccer” fan on The Fast Show.

I have watched the bulk of the games, and as the standard inevitably improves (there were some shockers to begin with) I’m more and more enthusiastic. I’ve also started a new policy of not drinking while the football is on. I’m on iced tapwater and coffee. The clear head feels nice. The semi-finals were enjoyable enough, although I expected so much more from Germany, who I’d planned to quietly and non-aggressively support in the final. (I know a couple of people who have Spain in their sweepstakes – hey, one of them is former Millwall captain Matt Lawrence – so I’m right behind them now.)

Despite an early goal from van Bronckhorst (who insulting people have said I look like) and a starburst of big player magic from an equalising Forlan at 25 yards just before half-time, Holland Uruguay was not an exhibition match in the first half, with both sides struggling to break through the other’s defence. But two orange goals within three minutes in the second half by Wesley Sneijder – now the tournament’s joint top goal scorer with Villa – and Arjen Robben, turned all the lights on. Even though that all-European final seemed safely in the bag at this point, Uruguay – lacking red-carded volleyball player Suarez – refused to give up, scoring their second goal in the second minute of extra time. This was a gripping, fizzing, entertaining end to a match that ended up being a high-ish scorer.

I realise Uruguay were the team to support, as they’re the underdogs, but apart from Forlan in his pomp, they’re a pretty ugly team to watch (and I don’t mean their faces), and they didn’t deserve to beat Ghana anyway. Holland haven’t been the second best team in the tournament, but that’s not the way football works, is it? They haven’t played in a World Cup final since the 70s, so let’s hope they are up the job on Sunday in Johannesburg.

After beating Germany in Durban – as predicted by Paul the Oberhausen octopus – Spain are in the World Cup final for the first time. They’ve won all their games since that early upset with Switzerland (which now seems so long ago) and may well be the competition’s quiet victors (Holland have won all theirs), despite suffering from the same blight as Italy, France, Brazil and England: star player not playing like a star. Torres didn’t even start against Germany, and when he came on he might as well not have, muffing his first pass and looking a bit slow. No wonder Villa didn’t even see him. Perhaps he didn’t actually realise he was on the pitch.

As ever, a goal broke the deadlock in the first half, coming late: Puyol off a Xavi corner kick. This should have spurred Germany into well-oiled action. But nothing came. Having scored four against England and Argentina, we expected more. They seemed to be a perfect blend of old and new players, with strikers to spare, and an almost mechanical ability to pass and not lose the ball and stay focussed and disciplined. (I’m not sure if I have observed that Germany are disciplined, in the same way that, say, England and France have not been, or whether I have merely picked it up by osmosis from commentators and pundits. I don’t mind either way.)

Spain did not miss Torres, with Villa and Pedro more than compensating, but if I were to use the phrase “at the end of the day,” I’d say that Germany lost rather than Spain won. (I expect the bierkellers of Hamburg and Berlin and Oberhausen were full of talk about the penalty that never was after Ozil – or Mark Moore of S’Express as I always see him – went down in the box after a challenging challenge from Ramos. This World Cup has been nothing if not a cavalcade of controversial refereeing decisions. I expect the BBC are working on a montage.)

What struck me most was how tall the Germans were compared to the Spaniards. It was like the game had been tampered with using Lord Of The Rings-style CGI. Spain really were the giant killers.

A fabulous weekend awaits. And what kind of a name for an octopus is Paul?

Oh, and here’s that Roundtable World Cup lineup: (from left) Matt Lawrence, Mark Clemmit, Andrew Collins, Damien Harris – they thought it was all over!

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9 thoughts on “Essay8

  1. So-minor-it’s-ultraniggly point of information: Torres is only Spain’s “star player” in the UK, mostly because he happens to be the star player for his Premier League club (although also perhaps because of the rather Keegan-does-the-Reeperbahn-driven assumption that any player who goes abroad must be better than the ones who stay at home).

    As seen from Spain, most people would say the team’s key players – I’m avoiding the word “star”, because it’s an uncommonly egalitarian squad, Spain is – are Villa, Xavi and Iniesta.

    • Firstly, how nice to hear from you, Archie Valparaiso, on my blog! Secondly, I accept your point and it is illuminating – as are many of the comments on here from more seasoned fans. Don’t forget, my information about football is not even received via the prism of Premiership vanity, it’s filtered through what I read in the Guardian World Cup Guide, which selected Torres upfront as one of the five big players to watch, alongside Rooney, Messi and two others I’ve forgotten. (I don’t actually carry it around with me!)

      • Ha! Just minutes ago precisely Villa, Xavi and Iniesta were named among among the ten nominees for the Golden Ball award for the tournament’s best player. If I carry on at this rate, I’m going to give that octopus a run for its money.

        (Thanks for the welcome, Andrew. Oddly, and a bit unforgiveably, I wasn’t aware of your blog before.)

  2. Chums! I was engaged by the Spain Germany game like no other yet in the tournament, including the England games. I was pleased Spain won, I think they are/were the better/more entertaining team. For me Villa is the player of the tournament, and was before it started (after his performance in the Euros). There may be a bit of Man Love there, but I’m not saying.

    I think the foul on Ozil was shown to be *just* outside the penalty area.

    Arriba!

  3. I think you’re onto something with the Ozil – Mark Moore comparison but is it just me that thinks Xavi looks like Billy Joe Armstrong out of Green Day?

    And am I right in thinking that the erudite Matt Lawrence is another Northamptonian?

    • He is, Andrew. We bonded over that. Although he is actually from Rushden, just outside Northampton. He doesn’t go back that often!

      • That makes him arguably the second greatest footballer ever to come from Northants, after the legendary Phil Neal (from Irchester). I don’t think Phil was quite such a fan of alternative music though. More of a Phil Collins and Simply Red type I’d say.

  4. Two brief comments (and a mini essay you can ignore)…

    Holland and Uraguay struggling to break through each other’s defence: I don’t know if it’s a trend but on a lot of occasions I have noticed teams with six players defending the edge of their own box. Pundits might call it the Mourinho effect after his defensive style with a few fast attackers hitting teams on the break. I wondered if making the goal bigger would lessen the effectiveness of defensive play.

    Uraguay didn’t deserve to beat Ghana: Ghana have asked for a new rule that when a player illegally stops a certain goal, a la volleyball player Suarez, a goal is given. Genius, I wish I’d thought of it when going on about fairness, it’s so obviously right you wonder why on earth it isn’t the rule.

    Lord Of The Rings-style CGI: Spain really were the hobbits, with their neat, fluid, ground-based play and er, flying header. I’m always in favour of fluid ground-based play. The best games I ever played in felt just like that, at school with a tennis ball on a playground that we’d have to ourselves during summer lunchtimes. If that’s how all junior football was played, without adult interference, I reckon we’d be a lot closer to having a national team like Spain’s. As it is, kids with a height or power advantage get ahead in every position, without need for wit or team play. The young players actually developing the skills needed at the top level, like anticipation, elusiveness and precision, will be the ones who can’t rely on height or power, and who are prematurely judged not tough enough. Yes Germany showed you don’t have to be physically unimposing to play that way, but I doubt the best coaching can beat growing up having to use your brain (what’s the betting their most imaginative player, Ozil, did that). Maybe it can’t beat growing up playing with a tennis ball. Shame Spain or Ozil couldn’t win it with a bit of style but that’s what you’ve got to aim for surely.

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