They don’t just think it’s all over. It is all over. But only if you pledge allegiance to England over allegiance to a great World Cup, which this one truly has been, and the groups aren’t even over yet. (At least, they’re not over for everybody; they’re over for England, and Spain, among other notables.) To quote the multilingual advert that keeps scrolling up like a Reeves & Mortimer gag: Quality Meats.
Now, to England’s early bath. Their defeat at the hands, or feet, of Uruguay was no shame. This talismanic figure Luis Suarez, only “75% fit” according to the pundit chorus, but still dangerous when he’s below par, scored twice, and beautifully. Only the face-painted will have been unable to concede those two goals. (Hey, we’ve all gone back to work or started drinking again a bit earlier than doctor’s orders, or put pressure on a broken bone or a pulled tendon or an ingrowing toenail before sensible, but playing a World Cup match and scoring two goals?) As for the fate of England, which was not strictly sealed until Italy failed to beat Costa Rica on Friday (no kiss for Mario Balotteli, then, but I think he might’ve be thinking of Kate), we’ve been hereabouts before, if not actually booking the seats on the plane home after two matches played.
Look on the bright side. The newly invigorated England squad shows cohesive promise. They have played less well and scraped through before, only to go out in the knockout with even more expectation on their shoulders. Also, Wayne Rooney, so vilified by armchair critics, managers and strategists, scored his first World Cup goal, having set one up in the first match – and from a textbook cross from Glen Johnson. Once Coleen’s re-packed those 18 suitcases, he can go home with his newly-thatched head held high. (I don’t like to read today about Gerrard saying he’s “a broken man” – he shouldn’t be, although anyone forced to wear an armband can never be too far from morbidity.)
The cliche is, they’re playing “for pride” against Costa Rica tomorrow. I’ve also read that, rather than play with long faces, the newer players might actually treat it as an exhibition match for Uncle Roy (whose position is immune from kneejerk calls for impeachment, thanks to a well-timed announcement from Greg Dyke, for two more years, which seems only right and proper – Dyke’s good at PR).
Ah well. I’ve said it before and risked the wrath of the flag-wavers and the confused Crusades-reenactors, but I always find it a relief when England crash and burn. It’s so much easier to enjoy the rest of the tournament when they’re out of it. And all nationalism aside, it’s been a feast of football, especially for those of us who check in with the game every two years! It’s not just about goals, but there have been so many goals.
Switzerland France was a beauty. Of the eight French goals of the World Cup so far, Karim Benzema has been responsible for five of them. But it was Olivier Giroud, with his great iced Shoreditch cupcake of a hairstyle, who headed in what was France’s 100th World Cup goal. As if that wasn’t showbiz enough, Blaise Matuidi scored another one 66 seconds later – more like 13 seconds if you time it from when the game re-started. (More records: Switzerland’s Blerim Dzemaili became the first player to score a goal from a direct free-kick at the 2014 World Cup.) With a final scoreline of 5-2, these teams were really spoiling us.
And so to Germany Ghana, a tie from which neither side came away with any shame, and whose 2-2 score utterly reflects the game that produced it. Many fancy Germany to win, and with Klose nudging himself to joint highest World Cup goal-scorer with none other than Gerd Muller with his first touch (yes, first touch) after being substituted on in the second half, we are gazing in wonder upon a Valhalla of football here. (I liked it when Gary Lineker sort of explained who Gerd Muller was to his younger pundits – “I grew up watching him,” said the 53-year-old, talking for all of we 70s football children.)
“German efficiency” – one of those almost racist generalisations – doesn’t quite cover it, although to watch the ball travel between white shirts from a distance, it could be a computer game. (Ben Smith in his perceptive BBC Sport precis noted the “pinball passing movements” between Ozil, Muller and Gotze.)
All that onboard, let us not forget the battle charge that was Ghana’s performance, with Andre Ayew and Asamoah Gyan scoring within ten minutes of each other. If it turns out that Fifa does have to investigate certain German fans for “blacking up”, it will be up to all of the other enlightened German fans to explain things to them (optionally, to complete the Woody Allen line, “with bricks and baseball bats.”)
I loved the fact that Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan equalled Cameroonian king of the road Roger Milla’s record of five goals, engraving their names as the two highest scoring Africans at World Cups. And I really want Ghana to beat Portugal on Thursday, which, on the strength or otherwise of their draw with USA (which – due to a social imperative commonly known as a rave for mums and dads at the South Bank – I missed), is not out of the question. Gotze, by the way, is the spitting image of the boyfriend of one of my nieces. I hope he wouldn’t be too upset at the comparison. It’s meant as a compliment.
I thank full-time football fans’ patience. But I find watching football sooooo relaxing and stimulating at the same time; the hypnotic rhythms, the dots of colour moving like flies across a sky of green, the thunk of a ball clogged upfield, the swell of the crowd, the undulation of a Mexican Wave, the cracks around the mouth in the face paint of a fan in closeup, midway into a game. If I watched football all the time, maybe I wouldn’t feel this way. But for an intense month every other year, it’s one of my greatest pleasures.
By the time of the knockouts, I’ll be able to name half of each of the teams still in with a shout, by their haircuts if not their playing style. I’ll be able to name the managers and recognise their dugout quirks and sartorial hallmarks. I’ll be able to differentiate the sound of Guy Mowbray and Danny Murphy from Sam Matterface and Andy Townsend (whose contention that a player “got a toe to it” always makes me cheer).
Style points: I wonder what would happen if you disqualified any player with a tattoo “sleeve” tomorrow. Whose team would be the most decimated? The in-progress-illustrated-man effect is admittedly subtler on darker skin, but from a distance the effect is still that of the after effect of a veterinarian who’s had his whole arm up a cow’s bum. And why all the Mohicans this World Cup? I know football is famous for extreme haircuts, and these men’s men have attitude to prove, but there’s surely nothing attractive about the shaved sides and Travis Bickle landing strip bonce? Raheem Sterling just about carries his off, although from the side it looks to be edging closer and closer to a 1980s King’s Road punk’s.