Brazeel, Brazeel … Day 7 of the World Cup; 16 games into the group stages; one cardigan; one headbutt; one smashed studio window; one England goal. But it’s not about England. Alright, it is a bit. If you’re new to my expert football writing, I do not profess – and never have done – to being a football fan in the sense of someone who lives for when Saturday comes and knows who scored what and when against whom and was transferred from where for how much. I do not follow club football, and I have no team (which is how come I was able to “support” Norwich City for a year or so when I was first on 6 Music, out of heartfelt allegiance to Gary, an ardent fan who worked on the show). The closest I get to such a thing is to feel a sort of vague geographical pull deep in my guts for England, and they make me pay for that sentimental weakness. We’ll come back to them presently.
If you are halfway interested in my previous football reports from World Cups, please put “World Cup” into the search engine above right. I re-read a few entries yesterday and was frankly impressed by the level of detail and observation. Was I really so blessed with free time in the summers of 2010 and 2006? Apparently so. Unlike most top football players, I appear to working harder and earning less. Ah well, let’s give this roundup a crack.
I must admit, watching Brazil fail to be Brazil against Mexico last night, and thus seeing a team play for the second time, I started to feel a bit of context forming around my position as a well-meaning fairweather enthusiast running to stand still and then finding out that standing still is pointless and running again. As the group stages unfold, generalisations can be confidently made, themes and tropes harden into a narrative, and hairstyles and habits can be matched with men and their positions in teams.
Due to being in Northampton last week, I was able to experience the first night – ie. the interminable interpretative dance-based opening ceremony and speculative heel-kicking in advance of the tournament’s first nightmarishly late kickoff – at my sister’s house with three card-carrying male football fans: my brother-in-law Graham and two of their boys, Ben and William, both glued to iPads throughout, naturally. (Although this enabled Ben to find out if “Hulk”, “Fred” and “Oscar” were the actual names of the Brazilian players so listed – no, yes and yes.) Due to school and work in the morning, staying up until the final whistle was tricky, so I nipped home at half-time and continued watching at Mum and Dad’s, on my own. Beers were taken, as is traditional. I fear for my waistline over the next month. Last World Cup, I had to foreswear the hops and move to chilled tapwater, mid-tournament.
Once it eventually kicked off, Brazil Croatia was entertaining enough. With a welcome early-ish Brazilian goal – albeit on behalf of Croatia – the game and World Cup at least broke their duck at 11 minutes. Defender Marcelo – and not blameless, brilliantly-named keeper Julio Cesar – will have to live with the unwelcome accolade: Brazil’s first ever World Cup own goal. Although what his OG meant ultimately was that Brazil basically played themselves to 3-1. Incidentally, Marcelo is one of an alarming number of players with a “sleeve” tattoo. I respect them but don’t like them. And I won’t have to wake up to one when I’m 70 and they will.
Poster boy Neymar (who my Guardian World Cup Guide tells me plays for Barcelona, a city being homogenised by the holiday cruise ship trade, so I read elsewhere in the Guardian) scored two for his own team, once in each half, the first from 25 yards, the second from the penalty spot after “Fred” was fouled (sorry, Fred was “fouled”). I have little context beyond their World Cup performance in 2010 to help place their continued international brilliance, but I have learned that Neymar keeps scoring for them. (I have major trouble remembering previous World Cups and Euros. I can just about recall which countries they took place in; this is what happens when you take your eye off the ball for two-year stretches.)
I missed Chile beat Australia and Mexico beat Cameroon (I usually enjoy watching the African sides play, so I’ll remedy this), but the big goal haul came with Spain Netherlands, a decisive 5-1 dismantling of a once formidable team now in the doldrums. You could tell a lot had changed since I last saw Spain reign: when Torres was brought on in the last act, the BBC commentator wondered aloud why coach del Bosque had even bothered playing him. How the mighty are fallen, even when they’ve moved on from their Alice-band period. (Spain have not conceded five goals in a World Cup since 1950, stat fans.) Good to see some other old faces: non-too-shabby Xabi Alonso, who took the misleading penalty for Spain at the top of the shop; Holland’s statuesque Arjen Robben, who made it five at the other end; Robin van Persie, or RVP, who now seems now to be carrying the whole team on his shoulders, like Balotelli and Italy, or Messi and Argentina, or … cough … Rooney and England? (As we speak there is talk that Roy Hodgson might not even start Rooney against Uruguay as the owlish multilinguist seems to be all about the young players and I rather applaud him for that.)
It might be remembered in all the easy Rooney-bashing that he set up England’s only goal of the tournament. England’s first game against Italy (get the toughest of their group out of the way first) was, initially, a revelation. Revelations are all relative, but “our boys” – and some of them are boys – seemed to be playing as a unit, pushing forward, creating chances, passing to each other. If you followed England during the friendlies here and in unfriendly Miami, you’ll already have a handle on their current form, but I didn’t. (Adrian Chiles made a remark last night about the general disdain for “soccer” among the Floridian camera operators he spoke to, who can’t get to grips with all the amateur-dramatic rolling around in pain involved in the game – they probably can’t understand why we don’t wear armour either, or split the matches up into tiny chunks to accommodate the advertisers.) I’m excited not to know so many of the England squad: Phil Jones? Luke Shaw? Raheem Sterling? Adam Lallana? Ross Barkley? Daniel Sturridge? I know who Sturridge is now, of course. His cool equaliser at 37 minutes, so soon after Marchisio’s goal for Italy, acted as a symbol for our raised hopes and dampened fears. I, for one, approached the second half with optimism, which duly evaporated like a line of that squirty cream the refs now carry on their utility belts. So we’re left with England in third place in Group D and Costa Rica first. It’s not over ’till it’s over, of course, but it’s started, hasn’t it?
Mexico were “accomplished” against Brazeel last night, according to Jonathan Pearce (a man still confused by the goal-line technology: “NO GOAL!”). Free-flowing football was expected from Brazil; in actual fact, it was flowing-free. As I say, after witnessing two below-par Brazilian matches, I can now say with confidence that the team could provide a serviceable Kajagoogoo tribute act, or at least two Sideshow Bob lookalikes, should the bottom fall out of their football careers. I don’t know if he actually was the man of the match, but the man of the match was Guillermo Ochoa, the Mexican keeper, who’s definitely a “keeper”. Every time a Brazilian goal looked likely, there he was, with his supermop of hair bouncing behind his headband, in front of the ball: fists, chest, stomach, whichever part of him was nearest, as as graceless as it may have looked. (As Mark Lawrenson wryly commented, “You get no marks for artistic impression.”) It was enjoyable to see Fred replaced by Jo, who has even less letters in his full name.
What Brazil need to do is bottle the unity and spirit that was actually free-flowing during the singing of their massive national anthem, from the tortuously long intro to the a capella final verse. Tremendous. Accomplished. Total anthem singing.