Essaythelast

Well, it is all over. World Cup 2010 has been both spectacular and dull; surprising and predictable; big-hearted and dirty; colourful and grey. With the drone of people going about the vuvuzelas still ringing in our ears, and Robben Island now full exclusively of guerilla marketeers in orange dresses awaiting trial, Africa may look back upon its first World Cup with pride, despite the dichotomy of all those empty seats and, one assumes, a surfeit of local football fans who might have willingly sat in them if corporate sponsors afraid of a spot of rain and Robbie Earle’s mates couldn’t be bothered to do so. I heard the Telegraph‘s insightful Jim White describing his experiences in South Africa on the Word podcast, and he recalled seeing not one black face on a park-and-ride bus into one particular stadium from a faraway car park, just white South African rugby fans whom Jim described as “event chasers” – football being traditionally an enthusiasm among the black population. Now, of course, all are welcome at a World Cup, but this side of things was not widely reported. (Presumably it was in the Telegraph?)

It’s a shame the African nations didn’t get very far into the competition, and that Ghana were knocked out by a handball that really ought to have been a goal, but the Europeans had it this time, and we knew that a team that had never won the World Cup before would take home the giant gold roll-on deodorant. This is exciting. I hoped it would be Spain, but assumed it would be Holland, with Schneijder and Villa in line for the Golden Boot, and Spain having risen without a trace after that early upset when Switzerland beat them. Now, I am reliably informed that expectation about Torres was whipped artificially up by followers of the Premiership, and that in fact Villa and Pedro were the men to watch, so his underperformance may be less of an issue than I was led to believe. Either way, he failed to live up to his reputation, which was a common theme, with Rooney doing the same, and Messi, and the whole French team, to a degree, who were a shambles on-field and off. (Raymond Domenech provided the lowlight of the entire competition when he refused to shake hands with the South African coach Carlos Parreria in Bloemfontein. I doubt his stars look too good at home.)

As for the final itself, well, after a tough and determined Germany Uruguay third-place play off on Saturday, Spain Holland was a pretty underwhelming affair, but it could have gone either way. It took until extra time for Andres Iniesta to insert the winning goal, in the same instance that British ref Howard Webb earned the ire of the Dutch – probably forever more, as these things work out – for not awarding a corner that might have made all the difference. Webb looked stern and non-negotiable throughout. He had a tough gig, doling out 14 yellow cards and sending off Johnny Heitinga at the 109 minute mark.

Hats off to Spain’s captain Iker Casillas, who kept Holland out of his net and was the first to cry when the final whistle went. The game had been filled with near misses (Sergio Ramos a notable culprit with a disappointing mis-header, something I find difficult to criticise as I’m pretty sure I couldn’t head a professional match ball back if you dropped it on my head from two inches above. But Robben also missed one. They were all at it.)

I have been enjoying watching Iniesta running around like the clappers, and I understand the t-shirt slogan under his shirt, the showing of which earned him one of those 14 yellow cards, was a tribute to Dani Jarque a 26-year old Sevilla player and teammate who’d died suddenly from a heart attack. You had to love him for that.

So Spain won the World Cup having scored the fewest ever number of goals in achieving that – and having lost their first match. That’s eight goals in seven matches. Not a high scoring World Cup. Where would we have been without Germany? Still, at least the final ended well at Soccer City, having started in neutral – so often the case in this tournament. And it was cheering to see former president and current icon Nelson Mandela riding across the pitch in a golf buggy. Not during the game, although it would have livened up the first half to have a vehicle on the pitch. No doubt Webb would have booked Mandela, too. (Although to be fair to Webb, he could have and should have sent off Nigel de Jong after a chest-height kung fu kick on Xabi Alonso. He didn’t.)

What have we learned then? That Uruguay’s national anthem has the longest intro in the world. It almost looks like it’s going to be an instrumental. See you all in two years.*

*When I’ll next be watching football.

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!

Essay7

OK, so the World Cup has passed that quality threshold now. Every game is important. Every game is good. Every game is wheat versus wheat. None of them have England in. Last night’s Ghana versus Uruguay was easily one of the matches of the tournament, in terms of sheer drama. I hate it when a game goes to penalties, but this one arrived at that unpleasant point in the most unexpected way possible. (For me anyway. You football fans probably see matches all the time that end at 1-1, move into extra time and are decided by a penalty in the dying minute after one of the opposing team’s star players handballs a goal out from the goalmouth and gets sent off, only for the team with the advantage, and who had played the best, to muff that penalty off the crossbar, sending the game into an actual penalty shoot-out.)

Like everybody else not from South America – surely! – I was behind Ghana to get through to the last four and the semi finals. Africa’s great white hope (now there’s a phrase that doesn’t translate), they had the entire home continent behind them, and ITV’s on-the-spot reporter, Ned Boulting, did a nice job of capturing the atmosphere in Accra, even though he insisted on putting his arms around two Ghanaian fans on the back of a flat-bed truck at half-time, which seemed forcefully matey. (I expect you’ll all tell me that you hate Ned Boulting now – this is the usual drill when I say I like somebody, especially one on ITV – but I have found him mostly unpatronising and at least hardworking.) Although Uruguay have more form, Ghana had more support, and when they went one-up just before half-time, thanks to a long shot from Muntari, it was a magical moment of anything-could-happen. And of course, anything did. Forlan, the most handsome player in Uruguay, equalised soon into the second half, but Ghana had way more chances, each of which they muffed. They simply couldn’t convert the chances into numbers, which was such a tragedy, as they had fire in their bellies and had been up until 1am at a Sun City casino, as Clive Tydlesley kept on reminding us. (I expect I’m not allowed to like Clive Tyledesley either, but I do, not least because he seems to be uniquely old school among commentators in describing a corner as a “corner kick,” every time. Jumpers for goalposts, indeed.)

When Asamoah Gyan crossbarred the penalty that lost Ghana the World Cup he became this tournament’s Gareth Southgate, something Adrian Chiles was keen to point out when he turned to Gareth Southgate back at the coffee table. Southgate had a glint of empathy in his eye. Am I allowed to like him? I don’t really like his geography teacher’s tank top, but I sort of admire him for sticking to his own style. Marcel Desailly, born in Accra, and a very fair but passionate supporter of his team throughout, was in bits. He was still quick to nobly congratulate the South American winners, even though Suarez had attempted to become this tournament’s Maradona.

The penalty shoot-out was typically horrible to witness. I didn’t much like the Uruguayan keeper Muslera’s psychological tactic of saying “Come on! Impress me!” with his arm gestures. He deserved to let them all in. He only let one in, which, in the irony of all ironies, the bold and brave Gyan had taken, as if to remove the bad juju. (Oh, I thought Muslera was a bit of a prick when he congratulated his own crossbar for keeping Gyan’s previous penalty out. These Catholics! They’ll bless anything.)

So, tears at bedtime for Gyan (he seems inconsolable, as well he might) and, well, the whole of Africa. It would be melodramatic and convenient to say that the vuvuzelas fell silent for the first time, but they didn’t. Richard Kingson, Ghana’s keeper, who apparently plays for Equatorial Wigan, did a fine job, as did they all. And he had to play in a top that looked as if it was off the shoulder.

Onwards and upwards then. (Ghana Uruguay my first World Cup match without beer or cider or rose accompaniment. Didn’t need it.)

Essay6

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?

Essay5

The BBC pundits regretted hyping up the Brazil Portugal match today, but who could have blamed them? Two of the top teams battling it out for first place in Group G? How could that turn into a “turgid” (Linker’s reassessment) and scrappy stalemate during which neither side showed its true colours and in fact spent most of the game either committing fouls or pretending a foul had been committed against them. There were enough yellow cards to make a life-size Brazilian player and put it on as a substitute.

Yes, it was pretty threadbare stuff – certainly not worth knocking off from work early – and some boos were heard towards the end from a previously up-for-it sea of blue and yellow. Alan Hansen pretended to have nodded off when we returned to the tangerine-bathed studio at full-time. Shearer, who I am now convinced is Stewart Lee, bemoaned the fact that he could have been on the treadmill back at the hotel. Still, that – as I have come to understand every two years – is football.

I actually do think we could have expected a little more than a goalless draw from a team who scored seven a few days ago. But Portugal, although for me, with my lack of knowledge and context, were the better side, spent most of the time lying on the floor clutching parts of their bodies in fake agony until it was clear the ref wasn’t going to award a free kick and then got up and carried on playing. And that, to repeat a cliche, is football.

At least a rubbish match gave Mick McCarthy something to sound dour and unimpressed about. It was as if the Brazilians and the Portuguese got together and agreed to provide a match that fitted his general outlook. Good on Ivory Coast for beating North Korea 3-0, while still failing to qualify. I see that North Korea ended on minus 11. Perhaps they will literally minus 11 when the squad returns to North Korea and faces the dressing down of a lifetime. Raymond Domenech should go and manage them.

I must admit I love this stage of the tournament, when you’re all comfortable with the pundits and the commentators (on which note, please spare me ITV’s Chris Coleman, whose Welsh accent is not the problem, it’s his technique of muttering off-mic and, one assumes, forgetting he is broadcasting, live, to millions of people), and your Guardian World Cup Guide is being gradually filled up with numbers and names. Yes, I’m excited about England Germany on Sunday, which I shall watch without xeonophobia, but I’m equally excited to see who will play Brazil on Monday? Spain or Chile? One hopes they will play properly either way.

Still, good news: after two weeks of wondering but failing to follow through and actually look it up, we’ve found out who Mahimbra Satyam are. Their name keeps scrolling up on the electronic Blade Runner-style advertising hoardings, and, unlike Castrol, Emirates, Tellkom and African Road Safety, I had no idea what it was advertising. I hoped it was a satnav shaped like a yam. It’s not. It’s the official IT provider of the World Cup, based in India, and they are very proud, as they might be:

Essay4

“Fucking superb,” as David James mouthed after England kept another Slovenian attack out of their goal in today’s decisive World Cup game for our boys. Fabio Capello was wise today. Not only did he change the “tried and trusted” 4-4-2 formation (as Gary Lineker described it, although “tried and untrusted” might have been more accurate), to a sort of 4-1-2-1-2 with a diamond in the middle of it, but he also replaced the entire team we’d seen fail to beat the USA and Algeria with some much better lookalikes. The BBC commentator, Guy Mobray, said, “Rooney comes alive when Gerrard’s got the ball,” and he was not wrong. The Rooney that we have come to rely on – and rely on too much – was one touch away from scoring on more than one occasion this afternoon. But it was Defoe, who Capello – always a very wise coach, I’ve thought (aside: no I haven’t, I thought he was shit and secretive, just like everybody else) – placed upfront and who, despite his squeaky voice, scored all of England’s goals ie. one. Gabby Logan called it a “nervy” match, but aren’t they all? England had to win this. And they did. And, unfortunately for the dirty Slovenia, USA won in Pretoria, simultaneously, so they’re out. Rooney was “agonisingly close” to scoring (Gabby again), but was taken off before the end, because he’s got a bad ankle, apparently, and has to be looked after. Still, at least he’s actually going to be playing another game.

I managed to get my work done at Radio Times in record time, by about 2.10, so I raced home to watch the England match. I actually watched it about 30 minute behind real time, but in my house, it was live. It was fun to try and get home before kick-off, as I was travelling on the Tube and overground with lots of other people doing the same thing. I hope they all made it to the pubs or living rooms they were heading for. It’s cool to get caught up in World Cup fever. By the way, sorry to add to the latest cacophony, but wasn’t it nice to hear fans singing and banging drums in Port Elizabeth, rather than just the vuvuzelas? Do you know what? It sounded like a football match.

Fabio Capello has got a massive mouth. If the ball ever hit him in the face, it would disappear. I think he looks like Heston Blumenthal with a wig on.

Commiserations, of course, to South Africa, who went out after a valiant display against a rejvenated France, despite beating them 2-1, yesterday. Of all host nations, surely they have been the most loved. We even let them get away with the plastic horns. I would say that they’re not singing any more, but they probably are, somewhere. I loved seeing the team entering the ground, singing. Imagine if the other teams did that. It led them to victory, but defeat.

Good heavens, I am currently watching Donovan, of the victorious USA, being interviewed on the BBC, post-match, by an American reporter, who asked, “What emotions are currently coursing through your veins?” Donovan said he’s been on an amazing “journey”. Give it a rest. At least you wouldn’t get our tongue-tied players saying that. They’re too busy saying it’s “the end of the day.”

It’s fascinating to see how much disarray both France, out, and England, through, found themselves in, and in such an international spotlight. Surely the most shameful sight of the World Cup so far has been Domenech, the French coach, refusing to shake hands with Carlos Alberto Parreira, the South African coach, after France’s last game. This was shocking. The footage is worth looking at: Parreria approaches him and offers his hand, and Domenech pulls his hand away, puts it to his face, points at the pitch, and presumably says something about how cross he was that one of his players was sent off. This is not good enough. I daresay he’s already been sacked. Thierry Henry has apparently been summoned to explain to Mr Sarkozy why the French team fell apart. At least Gerrard won’t have to be summoned by our two prime ministers. Yet.

I obviously don’t really know who Milner is, but I know he was the man of today’s match.

Essay3

People seem to be saying that it’s an anything-can-happen World Cup, which has to be a good thing. The old certainties do not always apply. Apart from, sadly, Group E now, where Holland are definitely through, and the plucky, re-energised Cameroon (a favourite of mine from previous tournaments, I guess since 1990 when they reached the quarter finals) the first to go home. France, Italy, Spain, even Germany are not yet secure in their groups, which is nailbiting for their fans – hey, join the club – and potentially more entertaining for the rest of us. I can’t be out on a limb in stating that yesterday’s Cameroon Denmark game was the highlight of the tournament so far. What a treat to see two teams attacking each other so passionately, and for the full 90 minutes – and only four yellow cards between the lot of them, which may simply reflect well upon the ref.

Cameroon, who’d steamed ahead in the first ten minutes thanks to the supernatural – and unmarked – Eto’o and some “Billy Smart’s manual” defending from the Danes according to Peter Drury, were surely everyone’s favourites by half-time. (Except for all those middle aged men with moustaches dressed as red Vikings, of course.) You couldn’t argue with Denmark’s two goals: the first at close range from Bendtner from an amazing midfield pass that Gareth Southgate confirmed as having come 61 yards from Simon Kjaer; the second from a man called Rommendahl, which was one of the mostly neatly slotted goals we’ve seen so far. But I for one never gave up on the Cameroonians. Unfortunately, they couldn’t pull a second goal back. I hope the other African nations don’t go out. South Africa look to be in trouble, Nigeria have yet to score a point, Algeria are on the bottom … Ghana are Africa’s best hope, although let’s not write off Ivory Coast just yet. (Looking forward to seeing them take on Brazil this very evening.)

Well, having mentioned Algeria, I guess we must acknowledge England’s pathetic failure to beat them on Friday. It’s been analysed to death in the media: Wayne Rooney’s ungracious remarks about the booing fans, for which in the apology culture of the day, he had to officially say sorry for (or at least the FA did on his behalf); the players’ fear of failure, which seems ironically to be causing the team to collectively fail; Fabio Capello’s dogged faith in the 4-4-2 formation and his potentially damaging decision to dump Robert Green one game in, when, in fact, there was no way he was going to make that kind of mistake ever again … it’s the usual round of recrimination and self-loathing. I allow myself to forget how frustrating it is following England. We all do. I don’t want them to go out, but they don’t deserve to stay in yet. I actually think booing your team is pointless and bad-tempered. Sure, some of the fans have spent a fortune getting out to South Africa and taken time off work, but there are never any guarantees, are there? It’s like booing the weather for not being sunny enough when you’re on holiday. Indeed, it’s like doing that when it wasn’t sunny enough last time you went. Or the time before. Anyway, I’m told it’s perfectly understandable for the fans to boo. So be it. (You might argue that the weather isn’t paid as much as the England players.)

While searching for the source of the Billy Smart’s line above (I think it was Andy Townshend who called the same Danish defenders the Keystone Cops – cue: young people scratching their heads at all these arcane references), I found this really witty and learned match report by a man called Mark Murphy on a blog called Twohundredpercent. I’m sure it’s one of hundreds of reports out there on football blogs, but it’s the first one I found, and I liked it. So here’s a link. I think their style.

Incidentally, are we up for Colin Murray, who seems to have quietly graduated, via the darts, to the BBC’s top table in Cape Town (and to Adrian Chiles’ chair on MOTD2, which as you will know, I do not watch)? I have seen him in action first hand on Five Live, and I’ve always liked his style – I also think it’s very smart to move diagonally from music to sport, if both are your passions.

Now, an afternoon beer, I think, in the spirit of the thing.

Essay2

So, after what many people have been calling a slow and underwhelming start, the World Cup came alive last night when Uraguay pasted South Africa 3-0. The South African fans have been rightly celebrated. They are enthusiastic, noisy, seemingly fired up not just by national pride but an overarching love of football. It’s like the fictional Hollywood film Invictus has come true! Always fearful of stereotyping any race or nationality, even positively, I am happy to say that towards the end of last night’s match, some South African fans stopped being enthusiastic and noisy, and started being stroppy and pathetic, with a visible contingent actually walking out of the stadium in Pretoria before the 90 minutes were up. This was a pretty poor show, even if it was intended as a protest against the referee’s decision to send off keeper Itumeleng Khune, who had done a foul. I’m afraid it just looked like sour grapes because their beloved team were unable to fend off the relentless South American attack. When your team is down to ten men, that’s when you have to start making noise, not taking your ball home. (Listen to me: I am a seasoned, all-weather football fan. I know what I’m talking about.)

Still, even though the whole world wants the host nation to qualify – Gary Lineker said so, so it must be true – it’s more than possible that they won’t. Because I don’t follow football, I have no idea how good South Africa are. I only know that their fans are welcoming, noisy and colourful. Or most of them.

It seems vulgar to reduce a sport down to how many goals are scored, but not that many have thus far been scored, except by Germany, and now by Uruguay, whose most handsome player scored two. Must we judge a game by number of goals? I found the Brazil North Korea match more exciting than Germany Australia, even though less goal were scored, but then, maybe that’s because North Korea put up more of a fight than expected against the big boys, and the drama hinged on that narrative. Also, Maicon’s magical backwards goal was a sight to behold. No idea why the pundits were debating its brilliance so fervently after the final whistle – was it brilliant, was it a fluke? – it was an amazing thing to see happen, let’s just leave it at that. (Ha ha, talking of goals, I just remembered that you can futuristically find out scores of matches even when you are just sitting down at a laptop with a wi-fi connection, and I discover that Argentina have beaten South Korea 4-1 while I’ve been typing. Has the numerical tide turned?)

It’s satisfying to find out that North Korea’s suspiciously well synchronised fans were actually volunteers from China, and not lucky North Koreans who had been let out of the country on the understanding that they would come back. You can’t win with North Korea – if you lightly suggest it is a dangerous totalitarian personality-cult nuclear dictatorship with an appalling human rights record you’re as guilty of reductive political stereotyping as imagining England is full of men in bowler hats who are unable to talk about sex. It’s much more healthy to imagine that football really can break down political barriers and unite us all, even North and South Korea, but when a participating nation won’t allow its citizens to travel abroad to see it, that fantasy is harder to maintain. (The BBC had found two North Korea supporters who live in somewhere like Portsmouth and travelled out to Riyadh to see them play, where they were the only supporters. I hope they didn’t walk out before the end, although that would have been some protest.)

I like the idea that the drone of the vuvuzela has now been usurped by the drone of people complaining about the vuvuzela. I have, I know, added to that drone. But the fact is, you only really notice it when a match is sluggish. I didn’t notice it as much while watching Brazil North Korea or South Africa Uruguay.

I am enjoying getting to know the pundits. I think it’s amazing that Gareth Southgate has forged a respectable career for himself on ITV after being England’s penalty donkey at Euro ’96 (which I watched, because it is an international tournament). Just shows how strategic a self-mocking Pizza Hut advert can be. Also, he was the first pundit I heard use the phrase, “You can’t legislate for that” after Robert Green’s fumble near a jungle, which I thought was rather eloquent. It turns out this is being said by lots of commentators and pundits. I feel proud for spotting it last.

I have engineered an afternoon off tomorrow to watch the England game at home. Next Wednesday’s I will be obliged to watch on the big office telly at the Radio Times, with the sound off. This can’t be avoided, as the TV schedules close at 3.30 on a Wednesday afternoon so that’s when I have to turn around my film copy. So I will be there, working, like all the other hardworking people at Radio Times, but also watching England play against Slovenia. I can’t lie: I’m enjoying the change in lifestyle that a World Cup engenders. And I trust the England fans won’t walk out early if the team don’t beat Algeria in Cape Town tomorrow.

I hope the guffawing Archbishop Desmond Tutu doesn’t stop coming to the matches if Bafana Bafana (“the boys, the boys!”) go out against France on Tuesday. I like him. Give him a Nobel peace prize.

Essay

So, World Cup 2010 is go. All the cliches about South Africa being “colourful” and “welcoming” and “noisy” are already well worn. “Noisy” seems the most contentious, although Fifa are refusing all calls to ban the constant apiological hum of the vuvuzela as it is part of the South African football-going experience. As such, it’s now very much a part of ours. By “ours” I mean those of us watching at home as much as those of us having an earful of it out there in Durban and Cape Town and Rustenberg until four in the morning. (It’s all the TV pundits were talking about on day one, having been kept awake by the welcome the night before their first day round the coffee tables.) What’s amazing about the never-ending reveille of plastic horns is just that – it never ends. Unlike the drums and klaxons we’re accustomed to, which wax and wane depending on the intensity of the action “on the park”, the vuvuzela fanfare forms a hard layer of irritating sound – akin to the whine in a Public Enemy record, or the buzz of a distant municipal lawnmower – it has already started when the TV coverage begins, and it does not go away.

On Friday, I taped the opening ceremony and first match, and raced home from an all-day script-meeting to enjoy it on a two-hour delay. However, I accidentally deleted it on my new Sky+, an inauspicious start to the tournament. However, I caught up, vibewise, by watching Uraguay-France, live, that evening. It was a very disappointing 0-0 draw, hardly the stuff to set my enthusiasm ablaze. I am, as previously stated, a fairweather football fan, disinterested in the weekly machinations of the league (in truth, too busy and preoccupied to give it sufficient attention and it’s too late to start now), but I find myself instantly fired up by the two-yearly internationals, and enjoy the crash course. You won’t find me in a crowded pub or even a crowded living room, feigning knowledge. But my enjoyment is real. I love catching up with who’s who, and reacclimatising to the TV pundits. I’m already a fan of Adrian Chiles, so chuffed he’s been transferred to ITV, where he seems more relaxed than he ever did on the One Show furniture. The BBC’s revolving panoramic eyrie seems a bit pleased with itself, as it scrolls its viewfinder round past Table Mountain to the Atlantic. That said, ITV – or at least ITVHD, which was surely designed for a World Cup – have some catching up to do, having allowed “human error” to insert an unplanned ad break when Steven Gerrard scored England’s first goal on Saturday. They promise it won’t happen again. Chiles called it a “glitch.” I wouldn’t have fancied being in a crowded England pub in that fourth minute of their first game. Surely chairs would have been thrown at the flat-screen?

You hardcore football fans will have to allow me my little pleasures: the frisson of recognition when a coach from two or four years ago turns out still to be in the job – France’s astrologer Raymond Domenech a good example from thus far, and Germany’s Joachim Low with his amazing resemblance to Muroc out of Gorillaz; the satisfying sweep of the Guardian World Cup Guide‘s player sheets for the over-30s (“Ah! Friedrich, 31; Klose, 32; Butt 36!”); the boyish filling-in of the scores with the blue felt tip that’s always left on the coffee table … I seem to have had far more spare time on my hands, whether by chance or by engineering, in previous World Cups, as I’m unable to keep up with too many of the afternoon games this time round. I’m making an effort to see whatever I can. Algeria-Slovenia wasn’t much cop either, with a single goal in the 79th minute. Although someone who watches loads more football than me has more to compare these matches to, I’m surprisingly patient, and once I’ve sat down for a game, I’m in ’till the finish.

On Saturday, typically, I eschewed the chance to see England-USA in a full house of people in football shirts and played instead at home. I’m glad, as national fervour does not grip me, even though I find myself saying “we” when talking about my home team. I don’t hold with Chris Addison’s controversial view, aired on Five Live, that people who fly flags from cars and vans are “idiots”, but I am happier hiding any partisanship by geographical accident under a more general enthusiasm for the rainbow coalition of international football itself. That said, I’m as crestfallen as any Enger-land fan when they disappoint, as they did against USA. Admittedly, the Yanks’ 40th-minute goal should never have been one, having been helped in by one-time Norwich man Robert Green in “a moment of complete calamity” – I have absorbed the fact that “we” don’t really have a number one keeper this year, with James injured, and Green the second choice – but Gerrard’s early goal, though unseen by 1.5 million of us, was a fantastic start, and it was enjoyable, for me, to see old-timers like he and Lampard and Cole and Terry still kicking the ball around after what has been a four-year break (and Crouch, too, after a substitution).

I can’t help but fall into the time-honoured groove of wanting England to go far, but sort of knowing they won’t. Not having watched them play since 2006, it’s weird to see David Beckham in his suit in the dugout. And hasn’t Wayne Rooney grown? These are the cries, of an out-of-touch grandparent, that emanate from my mouth during a World Cup.

So, enjoying it so far, especially the trouncing Germany gave to Australia, which at least upped the rather diluted goal count, and gave us the edifying prospect of all four of Germany’s strikers sharing a goal each, combined with the unedifying one of Tim Cahill being red-carded by the severe-looking Mexican referee. Our commentators and pundits seemed pleased with his decisions, on the whole. I really wish ITV didn’t have that smudgy black panel for the score. It’s the visual equivalent of a vuvuzela. Always there. Always spoiling it.