Archive | June, 2010

Edited Highlights

30 Jun

Rest day in South Africa today, so in keeping with footballing convention, I bring you the edited highlights from the past twenty days on the World Cup sofa. Dare to think, dare to dream…

Suddenly all the dredge of the regular season seems to have evaporated and descended into nothingness. The World Cup feeds us nostalgia. Sparkling little moments. Roger Milla’s wiggling bum, Frank Rijkaard’s exocet of phlegm, Toto’s eyes, Bebeto’s cradle, Gazza’s tears, Ronaldo’s wink, John Motson, Barry Davies, Brian Moore, Diego’s hand, Diego’s goal and a bucket of vindaloo. Pwwwweeeeeeeerrrrrrr! Attacking your senses with extreme prejudice. A wincing Adrian Chiles in the studio, obviously distressed by the onslaught. Even the equally infuriating brass parps of the Great Escape have never seemed so sweet at this moment in time. Despite the proclamations of rainbow nations and unity, everyone is still aware that the social and racial tensions still linger in the atmosphere. Carefully selected camera shots of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. A village which has subsisted without electricity. Installed a generator. They screamed with joy as they thought the replay of Tshabalala’s goal against Mexico was actually a second goal. The vuvuzela might actually do a greater good for South Africa. The vuvuzela knows no boundaries of colour, creed, religion or sexuality. We may moan, we may complain, we may even try to have them banned. To truly hate something makes you want to love it. Because if we all hate the bloody things, maybe just maybe the whole world for once can truly be united and Mandela’s ultimate vision will be truly complete. Pwwwwweeeeeeerrrrrrrrrr!  Steely. Romantic. Iconic. The magnetic charms of the incomparable Diego Armando Maradona. Chest puffed out, arms folded and supremely aware that he was the centre of the footballing universe. The gesticulations and protestations at perceived injustices. The suit expertly tailored. Every bit the Latin American icon. Maradona’s mere existence embodies that of his own country; inextricably linked to its poilitics, its artforms, its consciousness, its people. A symbol of the ‘Third World’s’ struggle. The metaphor: That second goal. A one-man crusade against the forces of imperialism. The first goal? The ultimate act of guerilla sabotage. He is simply impossible to ignore. What price, Diego steals the game again? There’s a horrible nagging feeling that’s beginning to emerge. Italy and Paraguay are currently inducing me into a stupor. Paucity of passion and skill on show so far. The new ‘Jubalani’ ball? Climate? Too many games. We have always been exposed to the shock of the new. The World Cup has been boring so far because everybody knows everybody. And they said romance was dead. The representatives of the Democratic Republic of Korea. Oh how we mocked their insularity. Jong Tae-Se’s spontaneous tears of patriotic fervour. Unfettered by the ugly remonstrations we have become accustomed to. Introducing us all to the ‘Pentagon’ formation. And they smiled. The World Cup has finally begun. “Honduras! Where’s that, sir?”. I wasn’t holding out much hope for the students at my school. And then the World Cup began. “Oh my god, did you see North Korea last night, sir? They were brilliant!”. Cocoons of insularity had been shattered. The World Cup – reaching those places where politicians fail to reach. Greece is a minnow in both economic and footballing terms. This undistinguished, unfancied and unloved team attained such unfathomable heights. “Six years on, we still don’t quite know just how this team actually won the European Championship”. The Greeks had a plan. Hope is always better than pessimistic certainty. How wonderfully Greek that feels. Dear Fabio. How I wish you had heeded the forewarnings from the desolate graveyard of England managers past. Success is counted with the ring of the cash register. Where is the forward-planning? “Hit it long”. “Get into him hard”. You’ve seen it over and over. Happy Birthday. The French football team’s ongoing soap opera. Egomania. Pathetic sight. The substitutes’ bench snuggled up cosily under tartan blankets. It has been nothing short of a mutiny. For the sake of football and France, let’s all pray for a draw so we can finally rid ourselves of one of the most reprehensible teams ever to disgrace the World Cup. South America provides a refreshing alternative to European football. The winner of this year’s World Cup will emanate from South America. What happens after that, both economically and culturally, remains to be seen. Consider the word ‘if’. What does it evoke? If I dare to dream…..We find ourselves in the eye of a glorious storm. The mythology of the tournament is yet to be written. What will replace the ‘ifs’ will be the wistful sighs of the regretful. This time tomorrow, Greece’s fate will be sealed. If. If. Always the magic of If….I don’t much like statistics and data. The star ratings and shot counts may paint a very different picture in tomorrow’s papers. As will the numbers that say a particular school is failing. The living is not in the reading, it is in the doing. Brace yourselves! It’s coming. Hun. Bosh. Kraut. I’m shuddering at the thought already. How ironic that the German squad should boast one of the most ethnically diverse squads in the entire tournament. They stand to make a mockery of any jibes. Germany is (as it is in most other areas) at the forefront. Oh, did I mention the war?  The footballing world is divided into two distinct camps. It is the nature of the team ethic that has the truest capacity to emerge victorious. The individual’s role though, remains to show us what the human race, at its zenith is capable of. Once upon a near time in a sun-scorched and southerly land, thirty-two armies assembled to resume their quadrennial battle for the Golden Trophy of Immortality. The thirty-two armies soon to be halved. Why do African teams continue to fall short when it comes to World Cups? When the infrastructure of a country is so riddled with holes, what chance does the comparatively ‘minor’ pursuit of football stand? Ghana tonight showed us a glimmer of hope. Yes they  can. This England team was rotten to the core and the outcome of today’s match was the depressing endgame to a tragedy that had been played out throughout the tournament and perhaps for a number of years prior to it. If the game in England does not make moves to re-connect with its foundations soon and consciously seek to self-evaluate its own image, I fear that the only ghost that will truly haunt its footballers will be that of 1966. Are Brazil just ever so slightly overrated? Perception. That’s half the problem. Because they are Brazilian. Argentina have played with a dedication to attack that is thrilling us all and is sweeping aside all-comers. It’s all just a matter of personal taste. How is heroism truly defined? The sports agents and their armies of marketing machines have airbrushed the game with ruthless omissions of the fabulous idiosyncrasies and blemishes that make this game so enduringly beautiful. Being paraded as a hero does not necessarily make you one and it is telling that this World Cup, whilst enthralling us with players of stupefying technical skill and ability has not yet produced a moment from a player that will be talked about in the years to come.

We’ll be back after the break.

Attack of the Clones

29 Jun

Hero: noun (person) –  a person who is admired for having done something very brave or having achieved something great. Cambridge English Dictionary.

Fernando Torres was tellingly substituted in the 58th minute of tonight’s local derby between Portugal and Spain after failing once again to re-capture the goal-scoring brilliance that makes him such a prized asset for his club side whilst Cristiano Ronaldo, rightfully and sadly in equal measure, is on his way home. He will be joining a litany of heralded casualties that have failed to live up to the hype that has been heavily bestowed upon them prior to the first kick of a ball in South Africa. The question that comes foremost to the mind is, why have the game’s supposed ‘big names’ so miserably failed to produce the mesmeric magic that so many had hoped they would?

The reasons may vary, from the fatigue of gruelling domestic seasons taking their toll to the failure of a team to measure up to the ‘special’ players’ unique talents. I believe the problems run deeper than such surface assessments and point to a depressingly 21st century perception of the definition of what greatness ultimately means.

How is heroism truly defined? What makes one footballer live longer in the cherished memory than another? Many of the players that have resonated with me in World Cups, have been relatively inconspicuous before the event that has truly defined their essence. In actuality, their elevation to the status of the hero has not only been forged in the spontaneous, fleeting moments of their brilliance but also cemented in the retrospective replaying and fond recollections with which we remember them. David Platt’s last gasp volley against Belgium in 1990. Roger Milla’s robbing of Columbian goalkeeper, Rene Higuita, and his ensuing corner flag shimmy in the same tournament. Yordan Letchkov’s receding pate diving to stun the defending champions, Germany, in 1994. All examples of heroes materialising from obscurity who grabbed their moments exquisitely and have thus become forever associated with a time and a place. If you also consider the winners of the Golden Boot, despite some notable exceptions to the rule, they are usually won by players who have not been globally recognised as ‘superstars’. Some have gone on to flourish with their new-found status (Gary Lineker), others have disappeared into the obscurity from whence they came (Toto Schilaci) but in their moments they shone and inspired all around them. Unlikely heroes some of them may have been, but all totally organic and free of any pre-conceived idea of who is deigned to be deserving of our admiration and adulation.

The sports agents and their armies of marketing machines have airbrushed the game with ruthless omissions of the fabulous idiosyncrasies and blemishes that make this game so enduringly beautiful. We are bombarded with images of metrosexual demigods sporting the latest crop of fashions from the boutiques of the world’s fashion-houses, dating the most desirable of models and living lifestyles beyond our everyday imaginings. For the average child watching the games in living rooms across the globe, they are the essence of what it is to be a hero in our media-driven, celebrity-obsessed 21st century culture. In many respects, we were all in awe of the game’s publicised leading lights at the tender ages of ten or twelve. There is nothing wrong with that because the young are always required to find role models with which to gain inspiration and aspire to. My hero was Paul Gascoigne. I worshipped him with such a passion, ignorant of the dormant self-destructions that would ultimately turn him into the tragic figure that I have come to see him as with the passing of time. However, being paraded as a hero does not necessarily make you one and it is telling that this World Cup, whilst enthralling us with players of stupefying technical skill and ability has not yet produced a moment from a player that will be talked about in the years to come.

Whilst the recriminations for England’s demise continue to rage, it has emerged that the squad had been living a virtually monastic lifestyle, insulated from the media and prohibited from any kind of contact with people not associated with it. Meanwhile, it has been widely reported that the Ghanaians, based at a hotel a few miles up the road, have been mingling with other guests and openly signing autographs for the young kids who turn up to see them. It doesn’t take a genius to work out who will be more favourably remembered by the children of South Africa when those ubiquitous playground kickabouts get underway. The modern footballer has become detached from the realities of the world in which he inhabits and consequently is perhaps unable to measure his true capabilities and frailties when massaged and flattered by attendant publicists, spin doctors and sycophants. Of course, the blame cannot be heaped onto these young men’s shoulders entirely but when their thoughts and actions are so meticulously managed and scrutinised by an omniscient media machine, it cannot come as such a surprise when they fail to reach those unattainable heights in which they are invariably held up to.

The death of the true individual (see individuals-united), perhaps occurred in that final, violent act that took place on a balmy Berlin evening four years ago. Zinedine Zidane’s act of shocking self-destruction to Marco Materazzi’s chest has been dissected and debated from the very first moment we all saw it. Moralists and social commentators have discussed at great length the ramifications ‘that’ headbutt has had on the game ever since; on the game, his reputation and on the impressionable young. However, in all its horrifying beauty, it demonstrates how this greatest of players was able to transcend the pressures and expectations heaped upon his shoulders. In the closing deed of his career, Zidane was alone, (despite the world’s watching eyes), on a field with an opponent questioning his very essence of being. In that one moment, all thoughts of sponsorships and contracts evaporated and Zidane was exposed as a human being with all its attendant flaws. Despite it, and maybe a little because of it, he has his place in the roll-call of greats.

While by no means advocating violence, I am hoping that something as truly iconic will happen at this World Cup. As the sponsors rotate their pitchside hoardings and the players emptily assert their image rights through elaborate body tattoos and orange-tinged Nike boots, the world awaits the unprepossessing, unloved, unknown hero who will seize his moment in our hearts and minds. He’s out there. Somewhere. He just doesn’t know it yet. And neither do we.

Tuesday 29th June

Last 16:

Paraguay 0 – Japan 0 (5-3 on pens)

Spain 1 – Portugal 0

Sambas and Tangos

28 Jun

Here’s a question for you to mull over: are Brazil just ever so slightly overrated? Chile were sadly swept aside with relative ease tonight by the five-time holders but with three difficult hurdles still to negotiate, it seems that they have already been crowned with their sixth title judging by the drooling of the ITV commentary and punditry teams before, during and after proceedings.

Granted, there have been sparks of pure intuitive brilliance from this Brazilian team but no more so than some of the other heavyweights competing at this crucial stage of the tournament. They possess some of the world’s most gifted players but what may have done for the creative Chileans tonight, was more a matter of playing Brazil’s illustrious reputation rather than the eleven men who donned the yellow jersey on the field. The Brazilian press has been highly critical of coach Carlos Dunga’s reliance on organisational discipline and a solid defence that is European in its mentality and dependent on the creative sparks of a chosen few. The legendary captain of the 1970 team, Carlos Alberto, has openly lambasted Dunga’s decision to omit up and coming crowd pleasers such as Neymar and Ganso and despite the subsiding of his unique talent, Ronaldinho’s sparkling tricks and grins have been missed in South Africa. What remains in my opinion, is a team that although not as ruthlessly boring as the ’94 winners or as average as the ’02 champions, still falls far short of what we perceive a Brazilian team to be.

Perception. That’s half the problem. Brazil have by virtue of their participation at all eighteen World Cups and their record number of wins on four continents have assumed the mantle of the greatest. While one cannot argue with these statistics and with the flamboyant and groundbreaking talents of some of the game’s greatest players (Garrincha, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Romario and of course, Pele), Brazil teams of lesser uniqueness and stylish swagger have been talked up whenever the World Cup comes around again. I believe this is the case of this 2010 incarnation. Against North Korea, although dominant, they found it hard to breakdown their opponents spirited rearguard by action. As Maicon cross flew into the North Korean net, the debate as to whether or not he had truly intended it began. Because he was Brazilian. Had it been Jong Tae-Se at the other end, it would have been immediately deemed a fluke without question. Against the Ivory Coast, they played decently but were awarded a second goal which clearly struck Lius Fabiano’s hand. Twice. And as Fabiano trotted back to the centre circle, we were treated to the spectacle of the referee joshing with him about the whole incident. Because he was Brazilian. And against Portugal, we were sent into a mid-afternoon snooze because neither team needed to win. But nevertheless, they have been hailed as the next world champions. Because they are Brazilian.

Now consider the other titan of South America on the other side of the draw. Argentina have played with a dedication to attack that is thrilling us all and is sweeping aside all-comers. Quite simply, their philosophy is to score more goals than their opponents and although the experts have pointed out that this may be tactical suicide, it has so far had devastating results. Maradona has at his disposal, the most formidable forward line we have seen in a long time. Should they reach the final, they would have overcome the challenges of Mexico, Germany and either Spain or Portugal. If their eventual destiny is to be crowned champions on July 11th, they would have defeated the toughest teams the competition could have offered. It would be the stuff of true champions and they would probably be held up with the great Brazilian teams of the past as the embodiment of Pele’s ‘beautiful game’.

Pele. That most lauded of Brazilian footballers. Consider how the world regards him in comparison to his only rival for ‘best ever’; the Argentine Maradona. Pele is seen as an ambassador of the game, forever present at FIFA-sponsored events and his goal record astounding (although there are doubts as to its validity but we don’t talk about that). Pele has his misses applauded. Although not famed as a particularly aggressive advertiser, Pele even makes it okay to take viagra because he tells you he would. On the other hand, Maradona is the game’s true flawed genuis and I have spoken at length in previous blogs about this without needing to go over it once again here (see el-president). But what he represents is the dance of the scoundrel and a game that promotes the sanitised ideal of ‘fair play’ (but will not consider the desperate need for video replays) cannot have such an individual triumphing against insurmountable odds. Make no mistake, Sepp Blatter does not want Maradona to emerge victorious but football, as life, is not prone to simple labels of good and bad.

Most Brazilians have respect for Pele, but they do not revere him in the same way as the rest of the world does. The man who holds the people’s affection is yet another flawed genius, Garrincha. A man who was a scurrilous womaniser and heavy drinker but possessed one of the most awe-inspiring dribbles in the game’s history, despite playing with bent legs. Garrincha had no interest in self-promotion and was amateurish in his outlook and because of this he continues to retain the affection of the nation whilst Pele is treated with a distant deference. Sound familiar?

Argentina have been viewed with an element of begrudging recognition over the years. They have been dismissed as cynical and crafty for a variety of reasons both valid and false. However, Brazil are often hailed as honourable pursuers of excellence despite having also employed the game’s darker arts to villainous effect in the past. Can anybody ever forget Rivaldo’s scandalous clutching of his face (despite having been hit in the leg by the ball) which resulted in a Turkish player being sent off in 2002? Pele himself, was even prone to the odd theatrical dive.

Can we truly elevate Brazil above the others in 2010? On July 11th, we might all have to chose between these two ancient foes.  You can probably come to your own decision depending on which of the countries’ famous traditional dances you prefer. The samba is the dance of hips, bums and feathers, reveling in free expression for all. The tango is a dance of sensuality, precision and high drama, utilising the maximum space available to two solitary lovers. For me, it has always been the tango. But I suppose, it’s all just a matter of personal taste.

Monday 28th June

Last 16:

Holland 2 – Slovakia 1

Brazil 3 – Chile 0

Eyes Wide Shut

27 Jun

Before the unfolding drama of England’s second round match with Germany today, the BBC ran a puff-piece evoking the words of the giants of both countries’ literary traditions with the aim of putting the requisite fire into well-fed Sunday afternoon bellies. Rounding it off were the words of William Shakespeare imbibing visions of glory. After witnessing the events in both of today’s matches, a more appropriate truism from the Bard would be Hamlet’s: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

The narratives of World Cups are always littered with the ghostly echoes of history. Much had been made prior to the match of the epic tussles between these two teams in the past. Talk of the spectre of penalties loomed heavily in the air and a succession of nostalgia-fests were trotted out for the over-30s to reminisce over. And ad nauseum, we were presented with grainy black and white footage from the 1966 final; fast-receding from the collective memory and becoming a meaningless exercise in triumphalism when ultimately measured against more recent Anglo-German encounters. Many might have been of the inclination that this World Cup, the final World Cup of that self-styled and increasingly laughable ‘Golden Generation’, would be the opportunity to exorcise the painful ghosts of history. Would it be so difficult to foresee a penalty win against the Germans, followed by a long-awaited meeting with this nation’s arch-nemesis, Diego Maradona (see el-president)?

The assumption was that ghosts only haunt the ‘noble’ sporting folk of this country. What in fact transpired, was the laying to rest of a ghost that had haunted the German football nation since that ubiquitous year of ’66: that goal, Geoff Hurst’s second, the one that never crossed the line. Today, the ball did cross the line, clearly, obviously, but Frank Lampard’s goal was summarily disallowed and will forever be used as the catalyst for a defeat by one of the most expansive and forward-thinking teams on show in South Africa.

Many will rage against the perceived unfairness of it all. As they do at every World Cup in which the England team always falls spectacularly short of its inflated perception of its own standing in world football. There’s always a Seaman or a Beckham to blame for premature exit, isn’t there? Or a ‘winking’ Cristiano Ronaldo. Or a precocious little Argentine pickpocket. Many of these people persist in their blind patriotism which sets up the English as defenders of an imaginary footballing chalice. The rest of the world just plays football. Properly.

England were shamed into submission today by a devastating team who deserved every piece of luck that came their way. But then again, the Germans did not need much luck. What they have developed, as well as the other great entertainers of this World Cup, Argentina, is a style of play that sees players moving from the midfield into the pockets of space left open by static backlines. As a result, they are able to stretch the formations of their opponents and send them into spasms of chaos. Time and time again this happened today and through the eyes of the neutral, it was a joy to behold. It is sad that Germany and Argentina will meet in the quarter finals rather than the final itself.

The greatest shame of the ‘goal that never was’ is that, it casts the eternal ‘what if’ (see ifs-and-buts) into a debate that should really be squarely and solely about the abyss the game in this country has degenerated into. Sepp Blatter was at the game today but the cameras conveniently chose not to highlight the squirming in his seat that he surely must have been undergoing. It is nothing short of a disgrace that in this age of multi-media and technological pioneering, the game’s governing body continues to be blind to the need for cameras on the goal-line. The contention is that such a move could not filter down to the grassroots and thus not maintain levels of parity throughout the game’s various strata. This is a preposterous view to hold when other sports, such as tennis, rugby and American football, use technology effectively in the higher echelons whilst continuing to be played by amateurs with little hindrance. The shocking decisions made by officials in both today’s games could easily have been avoided in the space of thirty seconds thus eliminating any kind of vociferous debate and cries of unfairness. The time has surely come to rectify this if FIFA wishes to avoid such showpieces descending into calamitous farces in the future. But we have been here before and sadly we will go there again. I have no answers as to why the necessary changes for the good of the sport continue to be met with such emphatic resistance.

Germany’s devastation of England will forever be tainted by such short-sightedness and as a result will allow the glaring flaws and problems of the state of the national game in this country to once again be papered over by apologists and publicists alike. This England team was rotten to the core and the outcome of today’s match was the depressing endgame to a tragedy that had been played out throughout the tournament and perhaps for a number of years prior to it.

Robert Green’s fumble saw the unravelling begin but once the genie had been let out of the bottle, it became increasingly harder for the team to live up to the mantle of potential world champions. John Terry shamelessly sought to use the media to spark insurrection within the ranks and although swiftly admonished by Fabio Capello, it was yet another example of the cult of personality that the modern day footballer is encouraged by the press to promote. How de-stablising his hubris was, will become apparent as the post-mortems rage on in the following days. And then there was Wayne Rooney’s inability to reach the dizzy heights that he seems to attain with ease at Manchester United. Added to his clear inadequacies was his flagrant antipathy to his fanbase when his efforts were called into question at the end of the Algeria game. How telling and saddening that the 21st century footballer cannot accept criticisms from supporters, manifested in the form of boos and is then blatantly forced to issue, pre-prepared apologies via intermediaries when the preservation of endorsements and image rights are brought to his attention. To scrape into the second round with an adequate win against a functional Slovenian team is the saddest indictment of a game that has finally begun to come apart at the seams in England. The glossy veneer has become exposed for the transparent sticking plaster it is during England’s woeful campaign.

At the final whistle, Capello maintained that the team had played well. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, et al continued to insist that the score did not reflect the balance of play and sought refuge in the realm of hypotheticals rather than face up to the fact that something is endemically wrong with how this nation views itself in footballing terms when in reality there is little evidence to suggest that England should be considered one of the game’s major footballing outposts. The team suffered the ultimate indignity of the German players playing keep-ball for the final 10 minutes as the crowd cheered with “Oles” at every touch of the ball but still we got the delusional  “It looks like we took a hiding today but that wasn’t the case,” from the captain. 

Apologies were the least that should have been offered but it has become apparent that our leading Premiership lights continue to believe in their own Murdoch-endorsed hype. They seem so remote and alienated from the rest of football now; leaden, plodding, indulged and excused. If the game in England does not make moves to re-connect with its foundations soon and consciously seeks to self-evaluate its own image, I fear that the only ghost that will truly haunt its footballers will be that of 1966. (see fabio)

Meanwhile, Diego’s and Germany’s paths cross once again. The future beckons them with open eyes. It is, as it should be. ‘To be or not to be,’ and all that.

Sunday 27th June

Last 16:

Germany 4 – England 1

Argentina 3 – Mexico 1

Continental Shifts

26 Jun

How magically fitting on this night that it was the first African-American President who popularised the notion of  “the audacity of hope”. I feared that the albatross of not just a country’s dreams and hopes but an entire continent’s, would perhaps weigh too heavy upon the tenderly young squad of Ghanaian players in Rustenburg. As it transpired , they held their nerve spectacularly when it looked as if the balance had tipped in the favour of the USA, once Landon Donovan calmly dispatched his spot-kick. With the final whistle came spontaneous outbursts of jubilation, which by the looks of things will be replicated on the streets of Accra, Yaounde and Johannesburg for a long time to come; cementing these Black Stars into the annals of the continent’s history in the process. No football fan on Earth can really feel anything other than an uplifting sense of pride that Ghana remain in the tournament. Ghana now face Uruguay and beyond that they but can only dare to hope.

However, despite the exultations, the question that remains unanswered after tonight’s match, is perhaps one of the most enduring conundrums which continues to perplex and confound received footballing wisdom: why do African teams continue to fall short when it comes to World Cups?

I fully appreciate why Ghana’s progress will be cheered continent-wide but imagine a similar scenario in which every South American nation bar Argentina was knocked out in the group stage. The sight of rejoicing in Messi’s lap of honour in the proverbial streets of Santiago and Rio De Janeiro is far harder to conjure. How many of us in Europe truly felt sympathy for the premature departure of the Azzurri and Les Bleus (see france)?

This is obviously symptomatic of a culture of intercontinental tension and rivalry and will take more than a football tournament to ever truly heal but these fissures have not manifested themselves between the competing African nations. What is saddening though, is that sides so technically assured and studded with talent as the Ivory Coast and Cameroon have so spectacularly flopped.

We have moved beyond the lazy and ignorant criticisms of African naivety on the world stage, that were so flagrantly mooted about by punditry panels of World Cups past. In their place however may lie a more troubling aspect that will continue to hamper African nations for the foreseeable future: the draining of the continent’s most gifted players to the riches and fame offered so tantalisingly by the leagues of Europe. African nations are still struggling to shake off the shackles of colonialism and because of the cultural damage caused by this, added to the more natural elements that ravage the continent, sovereign nations still live under the yoke of repressive regimes, corruption and a lack of basic amenities that we so take for granted in the ‘developed’ world (see va-va-vuvuzela). Of course, there are exceptions to the rule but my contention is that to truly flourish, African footballers should be able to compete in leagues on their own soil, of equal stature to those in Europe and South America and to a lesser but rapidly developing extent, the J-League of Japan, the MLS in the US and the A-League in Australia. When the infrastructure of a country is so riddled with holes, what chance does the comparatively ‘minor’ pursuit of football stand?

As a result, young prospects are plundered by the European clubs and the national leagues of Africa remain devoid of truly outstanding talent. This obviously has ominous echoes of past misdeeds disguised under the mask of ‘free trade’. This arrangement inevitably stymies development of footballing talent which could be fused into a working structure at home rather than abroad and hopefully then develop a sense of team unity within a squad of players, actually familiar with each as individuals, rather than through the reputations they have made for themselves in distant climes. Drogba, when he plays for Chelsea is in a team of equals. When he plays for his country he is revered to such an extent that it seems that his teammates are in awe of him and are consequently hampered. Until we get to a stage where there is a steady trickle rather than an exodus of talent to Europe (due to the strength of pan-African leagues) and until (however utopian this may sound), European players elect to play in Africa rather than gorge themselves on the pay-cheques of sultans in Doha, then I fear this inability to challenge South America and Europe will remain.

Perhaps I am too simplistic in my theories. I am aware that the grassroots of the game in Africa is heavily promoted and fostered by a series of academies and sponsorship from the game’s global stars. And I am aware that Africa is far too complex a continent to be categorised as a single entity.

However, by sharing in ‘Africa’s joy’, in ‘Africa’s World Cup’, in ‘Africa’s victory’ tonight, aren’t we negating the very nations on whose footballing success we all so desire but decry when they fail to live up to expectation?

Ghana tonight showed us a glimmer of hope. How audacious would it be if they overcame the final three hurdles and shift not just the footballing parameters, but also our continental ones. Yes they can.

Saturday 26th June

Last 16 :

Uruguay 2 – South Korea 1

Ghana 2 – USA 1 (AET)

A Folk Tale

25 Jun

Once upon a near time, in a sun-scorched and southerly land, thirty-two armies assembled to resume their quadrennial battle for the Golden Trophy of Immortality. Nobody could truly foretell the army that would eventually emerge victorious. For these battles had always been traditionally fought on more sympathetic plains. However, this did not hamper the Oracles of the Printed Word prophesying with foregone assurance that those Superpowers, equipped with more advanced arsenals and highly-trained personnel would crush with sophisticated ease those legions who relied solely upon their slyness of thought and the strength of their collective resolve. Thirty-two they came, ready to lock horns. Ready to unleash the weaponry of their dancing feet. Ready to toil under the burning sun. Ready to huddle together in uniformity as the temperatures dropped and their breath turned into wisps of billowing smoke.

“Behold,” cried the Shaman from the Alpine nation in the North. “I brought You the World and You are brought to the World”. And from the barracks, in sheltered isolation, we heard cries of battle from a multitude of warrior tribes. From the East, came Blue Samurai and an unknown army in red. From the North came veteran battle-scarred Centurians, fast-thinking Vikings and a battalion of Portuguese Men-of-War. From the West came a people unschooled in this form of combat, closely followed by shimmying tribesmen of the Latin territories who mysteriously employed the bewitching tactics of the Tango and Samba to hypnotise their foes. From the Oceanic world came half-men, half beasts, boxing their way they hoped to the top of the heap. And finally, came the Republics of the Nearby Vicinities whose chieftans sought to conquer, guided by their natural familiarity with the soil of this gilded land and the spirits of the Ancestors. In they came, onto the field, ready to unleash their battle-cries. Lined up, fearless and fearful in equal measure. The 32 armies soon to be halved.

The terrain of this New Frontier was indeed unfamiliar and some might even say hostile, as was soon discovered by the exploratory party from Latin America during the opening skirmishes. A cacophony of wailing blared across the battlefield; a weapon hitherto unknown to all except the people of the Southern Land. How their ears rang as the noise got louder! Commands went unheard and defences were punctured. Cries of ‘foul play’ began telegraphing their way across the airwaves. But it was deemed that the din added flavour and so remained and forced the competitors to adjust to their environs. Despite the hostility and revelry of that very first day, the Latins emerged unscathed but the people of the Southern Land cheered regardless as the most brazen of missiles whistled into the top right corner.

As the days unfurled, it became clear that the Superpowers were fearful of banishment from the Southern Land and because of this, were unable to utilise the full extent of their armoury to great effect. With initial victory in their grasp, the Knights of Saint George fumbled and bumbled and the jeering crowds at home challenged their morale. Elsewhere, the maurauding Matadors of Iberia were humbled by well-drilled Helvetians highly trained in the dependence upon and reliability of timing. And the world looked on aghast as the Gauls plotted mutiny against their clueless General sealing their own defeat to the enemy from within.

Whilst some wilted under the rising pressures, others prospered in their new surroundings. The Latins continued their relentless pursuit of excellence under the command of veterans of previous campaigns. And then came the Davids who thumbed their noses at the Goliaths of old. Men in All White and unknown clansmen of the Slovak nation triumphantly thwarted the behemoths of Rome, whose weary knees buckled with the passage of time; unable to capture those halcyon days of yore when they majestically bestrode the world with the Golden Trophy of Immortality.

Meanwhile, the tormented troops continued to find ways to disguise their obvious flaws from the All Seeing Eye of the camera lens. They blamed the tools of their toil with daily missives to the Oracles with a regularity of purpose. “Too light!,” they complained. “Too bendy!,” they moaned. “Too bad,” smirked the Teutons who had prepared for their campaign with characteristic precision in the preceding months before combat began.

And as the battles raged, some emerged victorious from the jaws of defeat to fight another day with improbable acts of derring-do. The Samurai of the East hurled themselves with relish and hunger into every confrontation while the unswerving combatants of the Yankee-Doodle-Dandy stretched exhausted limbs to the limit which climaxed in last-gasp jubilation and positional superiority over former superiors.

Thirty-two armies took to the battlefields. Sixteen remained. Summonings to the Courts to hold purges with their Masters and ceremonial public executions dispensed by the Oracles, awaited the humiliated vanquished. For the defeated and fallen heroes would come glittering treasures and ticker-tape parades and all the spoils of improbable moral victory.

For the Final Sixteen, the coming days would bring forth re-acquaintances with former foes and new fronts of rivalry and myth being forged. The Oracles had not seen the future nor had they ever. Because the future was yet to be written. The Southern Land continued to enthrall with both its familiarity and its unfamiliarity. The Golden Trophy of Immortality awaited….

Friday 25th June:

Group G: Brazil 0 – Portugal 0

North Korea 0 – Ivory Coast 3

Group H: Spain 2 – Chile 1

Switzerland 0 – Honduras 0

Individuals United

24 Jun

Perhaps more pronounced than ever before, the footballing world is divided into two distinct camps. On one side are the teams that employ rigid formations and highly organised strategies that have reaped rewards to varying degrees. Juxtaposing them are the teams whose lifeblood runs through the veins, match fitness and temperament of a single, totemic talisman. For every unbreakable line of Swiss defenders, there is a Didier Drogba who embodies his team’s ambitions. For every squad of unfamiliar Slovakian faces, there is a Lionel Messi who is capable of turning a game in his country’s favour with one moment of breathtaking flamboyance. Quite which philosophy trumps the other is a matter of perennial debate but both present us with issues that both furrow the brow with worry and leave us scratching our heads in consternation.

As the group stage reaches its tantalising denouement, it can be rightly observed that we have seen teams achieving success which is greater than the sum of their parts. Slovakia’s unceremonial dethroning of Italy today was perhaps the greatest example of a unit of players fully aware of their respective roles and functions and through dogged adherence to their manager’s masterplan, delivered one of the most humiliating eliminations of a gloriously decorated set of champions that we have ever seen in this competition. Slovakia have not been alone in following a thoughtfully considered set of instructions which has paid dividends in the midst of battle. New Zealand left the tournament today with the proud knowledge that they were undefeated. Unfancied Paraguay topped the same group employing a highly disciplined footballing ethos. Meanwhile, Japan took full advantage of their relative anonymity to a European audience by unleashing a bamboozling demonstration of passing and movement upon a Danish side that looked heavy and plodding in comparison. This Last 16 is throwing up barely predictable match-ups which although unforeseen at the beginning of the tournament, is no less welcome. Ghana vs USA? Paraguay vs Japan? South Korea vs Uruguay? Surely these offer much more intriguing narratives than that other soap opera, that seems to have rumbled on since the dawn of man…

What has garnered so much success for these teams, far and beyond the natural order of the footballing pecking order, must to a degree be the willingness of the individual to submerse his natural inclinations for self-expression for the good of the Cause. Within this structure, collective triumph trumps personal ambition and consequently results in football that may not please the eye of the aesthete but nevertheless draws applause from those of us that truly value the libertarian principles of the game.

Such a philosophy does have its worrying side-effects. Such subjugation of the will lends itself to the more sinister forces of political totalitarianism and it can be no coincidence that Mussolini sought to align his heinous beliefs with those of the Italian national squad in the 1930s. During the 1938 World Cup in France, with Europe tragically dangling on the edge of confrontation, the Azzuri took to the field in black shirts replacing their famous blue upon the behest of Il Duce. What he was trying to demonstrate was that football’s mantle of that of the People’s Game could promote the ideals of fascism with its propensity for promoting the cult of the group and marching in unbreakable, straight lines. With individuals being crushed under the jackboots of hatred, the team mentality of that ultimately double World Cup-winning Italian side was used to propagate the infamous belief in the ‘triumph of the will’. With the spectre of fascism forever tainting these victories, it is no surprise that the Italian people did not feel that they had truly won the World Cup until 1982. And in 1982, their glory was presented to them in the shape of an individualist, in Paolo Rossi.

The loner. The iconoclast. The symbol. The individual. That one person who can leave lesser mortals wobbling with embarrassment with a deft flick of the heels or a lightning quick dragback. The game’s mythology is graced with those players who possess the most outrageous of gifts and play to a different rhythm to everybody else on the field. Although we have not seen these players rise to the occasion as yet, we have seen flickers (in the determined stare of Diego Forlan, in the insouciant ball-juggling of Ronaldo and the trickery of Robinho) to suggest that their Theatre of the Spectacular will truly reach its climax when the margins of victory and defeat are at their most finely balanced. It is in the grip of sudden death knockout situations when the game’s legends are truly made and the tournament still boasts these in relative abundance.

Where the investiture in the individual comes unstuck is when the talisman is not on form through a combination of expectancy, bad form and lack of full fitness. When one man is the sole difference between teams of similar ability, the results are less clear-cut and this has sadly been the case for the Ivory Coast and Drogba, Cameroon and Samuel Eto’o and to a point England and Wayne Rooney. When everything hinges upon the shoulders of these hugely-gifted but nevertheless mortal men, and those around them are hard-working but technically inferior, the outcome is usually one of disappointment whether that is ignominious or gallant.

There are of course exceptions to all rules. It is beyond question that Diego Maradona single-handedly (pun intended) dragged Argentina to victory in 1986 with the unique outrageousness of his skill and Brazil’s team in 1970 was a team of individuals, despite having Pele as its nominal figurehead, which possessed skill and vibrancy the like of which has never been bettered but still remained vulnerable when attacked.

The ultimate culmination of a team’s greatness needs to fuse both of these fundamentally oppositional ideologies together. The Dutch team of the 1970s, who pioneered the concept of Total Football, whereby each player could play in any given position at any moment in time (with Johan Cruyff as its artist-in-chief in ’74), was perhaps the closest we have ever come to seeing the realisation of footballing purity. However, they too suffered from the clash of egos that such adherence to personal whims is prone to and subsequently they came away from two World Cup finals empty-handed.

The victorious ‘school of footballing philosophy’ has yet to manifest itself. What has though, is the realisation that however much Nike would like to have us believe that their chosen individuals have it within their power to alter history (See yawn ), it is the nature of the team ethic that has the truest capacity to emerge victorious. The lessons of history, for better or worse, teach us this. The individual’s role though, remains to show us what the human race, at its zenith, is truly capable of.

Messi, Rooney, Ronaldo: The stage is yours.

Thursday 24th June:

Group E: Denmark 1 – Japan 3

Cameroon 1 – Holland 2

Group F: Paraguay 0 – New Zealand 0

Italy 2 – Slovakia 3


Will The Real Rainbow Nation Please Stand Up?

23 Jun

Brace yourselves! It’s coming. And how Clive Tyldesley couldn’t contain his hungry anticipation of the impending clash between those two ancient foes, England and Germany in Bloemfontein this coming Sunday afternoon. Listing Germany’s various political incarnations throughout the years he finished his ‘spontaneous’ outburst of rhetoric by  making reference to England having to play ‘damn’ Germany and but for the inconvenience of the killjoy censors, he wanted to make us plainly aware that England have also played ‘a different kind of Germany’. I genuinely believe he meant the f-word, but we are already in the early stages of what might evolve into a very ugly few days in the story of this World Cup. Be careful what you say, Clive. Less discerning viewers might take that to be a thinly veiled to something more sinisterly malevolent. And remember, we don’t mention that…

Hun. Bosh. Kraut. Two World Wars and one World Cup. I’m shuddering at the thought already and I hope we in this nation have learnt from the offences of the past. Casual racism towards our European brethren seems to have always been far more socially acceptable than if such flippant remarks were aimed at people of a clearly visible skin colouring. Who can ever forget or condone that squalid, grubby front page put out by Piers Morgan and his minions at the Daily Mirror on the day of England’s momentous semi-final with Germany in the Euro ’96 semi-final? Featuring a bawling Stuart Pearce and Paul Gascoigne in Tommy helmets under the legend, “Achtung Surrender!”, whilst spitting out a plethora of bastardised Chrurchillian phrases? Many might have chuckled at the ‘tongue in cheek’ manner in which it was misguidedly intended but to use a football match between two teams to score points in jingoistic taunting makes Morgan’s eternal suffering in the purgatory of the dregs of Britain’s Got Talent both justified and highly amusing. He deserves far worse. To use the tragedy of one the most turbulent and bloody periods in mankind’s history for the purpose of drumming up support for 11 men kicking a ball defies words. Even if that was 14 years ago, the ire remains.

By dwelling on these past misdemeanours, I am aware that I too am falling into the trap of using past events to support a point. However, the forces of the media I am afraid will not be able to resist this form of subversive taunting. Old grudges, old grievances, old labels. Wait and see. And despite what everybody else would have you believe, the refreshingly accepting outlook so commendably demonstrated by my students will be put severely to the test on the playground in the next few days. And all because of the grim examples set by those who really should know better.

How ironic then that the German squad should boast one of the most ethnically diverse squads in the entire tournament. By comprising players of Turkish, Polish, Brazilian, Spanish and Ghanaian descent they stand to make a mockery of any jibes made by our media which imply a race made up of blond-haired, blue-eyed monochromes. Most of these players actually derive from mixed parentage and consequently have potentially split-allegiances when it comes to both ethnic identification and national outlook. One of the most intriguing aspects of the game tonight was the prospect of seeing two brothers taking to the field in direct opposition to one another, in the shape of Jerome and Kevin-Prince Boateng who play for Germany and Ghana respectively, having a German father and a Ghanaian mother. Seeing both siblings lined up against each other brought to the fore the very notion of what the nation state as an entity actually represents at this juncture in history.

I am of Greek and Greek Cypriot origin having been born in the UK; the grandson of immigrant grandparents who arrived on these shores under the umbrella of colonialism. Seeking economic well-being, they worked tirelessly to contribute to the country they had made their home but never for once forgot to instill a sense of pride and yearning for their cultural roots into the generations that followed. As a result, I consider myself Greek first and foremost and British second. These twin notions of identity have consequently enabled me to view all aspects of historical and societal storytelling with a healthy open-mindedness which therefore allows me to be more balanced in my outlook on life. I am equally at ease with the quintessential Britishness of the Carry On films or fish and chips than I am with aspects of Greekness like Demis Roussos and souvlaki. If I had been so blessed, I would have had the option to play for three national teams, in much the same manner as many of the footballers on show at this year’s tournament. I have friends and family of Canadian-Spanish, Anglo-Pakistani and  Austro-Australian origin and none of us seem to have quite the same hang-ups about belonging to a country that some people of mono-ethnicity seem to have. Even ITV anchorman, Adrian Chiles makes noisy reference to the fact that his father is English and his mother is Croatian and is always torn when both these nations meet on the field of play.

Instead of being emblematic of nations in their traditional forms, the World Cup has actually highlighted the fact that countries are more representative of a world in constant migratory flux. Old grievances somehow seem far more irrelevant when the multicultural make-up of a nation takes in political asylum seekers from Turkey and hard-working Poles. Different histories, different perspectives. Germany is (as it is in most other areas) at the forefront. This can only be to the country’s gain, both in terms of its future well-being and its continued success as a footballing powerhouse when you consider that Mesut Ozil is set to become one of the tournament’s shining lights.

Whilst the host nation has gone to great lengths to package itself as the Rainbow Nation, it is still very faraway from the kind of social integration that its people deserve. I hope progress has been made with regard to the stratification that remains which polarises the country’s two national sports into aspects of colour. I hope we will see more whites playing for Bafana Bafana in 2014 as I hope for the opposite for the Springboks and this World Cup can only have helped the cause.

Meanwhile in Old Blighty, the tabloids are preparing “one last push”, “over the top”, “for England and Saint George”. Oh, did I mention the War? Like I said, it’s going to be a long few days…

Wednesday 23rd June

Group C: Slovenia 0 – England 1

USA 1 – Algeria 0

Group D – Germany 1 – Ghana 0

Australia 2 – Serbia 1

The Numbers Game

22 Jun

I sadly missed the gallant but ultimately futile attempts of  Bafana Bafana to avoid becoming the first ever host nation to go out in the group stage today. I missed it because of numbers. Cold, heartless numbers. I don’t much like statistics and data. They group people together into faceless graphs that suck out any semblance of individuality and personality which only serves to embed preconceptions and prejudices which as a teacher, I do so much to eradicate from the malleable minds of the young. As the minutes of the meeting turned into hours, I began to question the fundamental reasons that I chose to enter this profession in the first place. How can a bureaucrat in a faraway monolith of drabby cement even begin to understand the personalities that my fellow professionals and I juggle with every day, (with all their stratifying elements of mischievousness, witticisms and travails) through the emotionless accumulation of  anonymous polls and pie charts. I decided today, that I will refuse to play the numbers game however much that might hinder any vainglorious ideas of career progression.

Then the news of the stringent and callous pay freeze on the public sector, by our fledgling ConLib government depressingly filtered through. Colleagues who I look up to, as well as hospital workers, refuse collectors and six million other hard working souls will be made to bare the burden for the avarice of indulged and insulated bankers who have continued to evade the legal consequences of their selfish actions. This was not a good day to begin to take notice of the world beyond Planet Football but as it transpired, it wasn’t the best of days to be living in it either.

“They’ve killed the game,” Alan Hansen bemoaned. “Cynical,” Mick McCarthy decried. “It’s good for the tournament that they won’t be in the Last 16,” the ever-so astute sophists on the BBC punditry lounge pontificated. And here lies the crux of my argument: if you had not witnessed the engrossing tussle of disparate tactical philosophies that took place tonight between Greece and champions-elect, Argentina, you would be under the impression that what came to pass was comparable to a somnambulistic afternoon in a dust-filled library rather than one team’s valiant attempts to repel one of the most fearsome forward lines on show at this tournament. You cannot change the proverbial goalposts of praise when the team is not to your personal liking. Switzerland’s rearguard action against Spain last Thursday, was no less unadventurous than Greece’s tonight; in many respects it was more so. And yet the Swiss were applauded. I have written elsewhere in this blog about the media’s continuing harbouring of grievances towards Greece’s approach to the game. What was heard on our television screens tonight only justified my initial observations but there is something distasteful when a corporation so renowned for its impartiality falls so far short of its own lofty ideals. To add insult to injury, the parochial jocularity reached its shameful nadir when Hansen couldn’t be bothered to even utter the name of Greece’s best player of the night because he had “too many syllables” in his name.

For the record his name is Socratis Papastathopoulos and he carried out the most effective nullification of the world’s greatest player, the like of which any number of La Liga defenders would have wished they had the capacity to enforce throughout this past season. Lionel Messi was reduced to pot shots from outside the area for the vast majority of the match, throwing his arms skywards in frustration, as Papastathopoulos stuck to him like hardened rice on a sieve. Imagine if that had been Gareth Barry in that unheralded role? How Shearer would have salivated at his dedication to the cause and indefatigable English spirit. To his credit, Messi did not lash out but teams of greater ability have been presented a chink in his armour which could pose a serious threat to Argentina’s capacity to attain the ultimate accolade in a couple of weeks time. I believe it was an Englishman who scribed the words “beware of Greeks bearing gifts”.

The Greeks played as a unit. Every man knew his job and carried it out with ruthless precision. Their demise in the end, may have been inevitable but there can be no shame in going out to a team bejwelled with the majestic players Maradona has at his disposal. We leave the World Cup having won our first ever game and played to the limits of our ability. If we had been more expansive we would have suffered the humiliation that befell North Korea yesterday and so the players can leave with their heads held high. I have naturally drifted into the melancholic arena of the ‘what if’ but nevertheless rejoice. I would rather be a Greece supporter than a follower of a Mick McCarthy side any day….make of that what you will.

What I have offered tonight, is a perspective of a match that was experienced through partisan, yet unblinkered eyes. The star ratings and shot counts may paint a very different picture in tomorrow’s papers. As will the numbers that say a particular school is failing. As will the number of patients awaiting beds. And so on and so on. The living is not in the reading, it is in the doing. The Greeks played their game, the teacher plans his lessons into the early hours, the nurse bathes the withering bodies of the incapacitated. The sooner our supposed superiors realise that fact, the sooner we, be it Socratis Papastathopoulos, Mr English Teacher or Sister Nurse, can be allowed to do our jobs to the maximum of our ability without the guillotine blades of the bar graph dangling over our heads.

Tuesday 22nd June

Group A: South Africa 2 – France 1

Uruguay 1 – Mexico 0

Group B: Greece 0 – Argentina 1

South Korea 2 – Nigeria 2

Ifs and Buts

21 Jun

Consider the word ‘if’. What does it evoke? Through our natural inclination for inquisitiveness we have asked questions which have allowed our chaotic human race to elevate itself above the other lifeforms of planet Earth. If I strike those flints, what will happen? If E=MC2, what is the result? If I fly to the moon, what else can I achieve? If I dare to dream….

The Sun newspaper has used a surprisingly assured Terry Venables, crooning Elvis Presley’s ‘If I Can Dream’, to harness the perennial atmosphere of hope that engulfs the nation whenever the World Cup comes around. Like them or not, those legions of Saint George’s flags fluttering on the breeze on car windows feed into that notion of the optimistic dream. Maybe. Just Maybe. That’s the catchphrase that encapsulates every nation’s hopes for what the coming days will have in store. Never mind the reality that New Zealand will not be doing a triumphant lap of honour in Johannesburg on July 11th. Or that North Korea suffered cruelly today at the clinical feet of the Portuguese. For a few fleeting moments, as the All Whites lead against the World Champions and the Koreans provided more than a match for the most successful footballing nation on earth, those players and all their compatriots, however cynical or sensible in outlook had visions of beautiful, unadulterated jubilation running through their minds. If…

We find ourselves in the eye of a glorious storm tonight. The anticipation of the build-up to South Africa 2010 has receded into our collective memories and the climax of proceedings is still a distant prospect on the horizon. The mythology of the tournament is yet to be written and I find myself living a day-to-day existence in which I seek out trivia and hearsay from Africa. Like an anxious relative of a combat soldier scanning the airwaves for daily updates on the latest maneuvers on the front line, I am consumed with every morsel of information released; hungrily devouring every soundbite that leaves the lips of Maradona (“go back to the museum, [Pele]”), Capello (“big mistake”) or Domenech (“[the refusal of the French squad to train on Sunday was] an aberration”). I find myself waking up in the morning and immediately going online to find out the latest, spend the working day texting for information and the evening taking in as much of the action and reaction as I possibly can. I have not watched the news since the World Cup began and to be perfectly honest the absence of  oil spills and politicians and mortar attacks from my screen has worked a kind of cleansing tonic on my mind. I have been in a good mood since June 11th and is it such a coincidence that this has coincided with my self-imposed exile from the complications and conundrums of the twenty-first century?

What currently occupies my mind on a daily basis, is a familiar experience for most football obsessives. Working out mathematical combinations and permutations for progress from what are turning out to be a series of ‘groups of death’, dissecting the latest images of squad in-fighting on the training field beamed to us from wobbly mobile phone footage and trying to make sense of the developing sub-strands to a narrative that has yet to be fully formed. What I love is the sublime uncertainty of the future yet to be written.

Every team has now played twice and we now have a better idea of what the prospects are for those competing. Unfortunately, Cameroon, North Korea and effectively Honduras, have been eliminated from the competition but the final round of group games is poised to elevate hitherto uncelebrated players to iconic status whilst drawing the curtain on the international careers of other, more illustrious footballing aristocracies. And this is where the fabulous guessing game of the fan truly comes into its own, balanced precariously on the tightrope of dream and nightmare: IF Italy go out to Paraguay, how will they seek to re-build an ancient team more at home amongst the ruins of the Coliseum than the majesty of Soccer City ? IF Portugal go through, how will Ronaldo fare in a potential clash with Spain in the last 16 which would be a contest of 11 Playstation Spanish Ronaldos versus one? And IF England should crash out of a group containing such undistinguished but as it has turned out, so foolishly underestimated opponents in Algeria, Slovenia and the USA….? I think you know the outcome to that potential hypothetical. And let’s not forget the potential for positive outcomes when a statement is prefaced with that magical word. IF Australia make it out of their group, they will cement their country’s reputation for an unshakeable belief in its sporting prowess within the annals of its sporting history.  IF Ghana can carry forth the African challenge to the second round, they will shoulder the responsibility for and the hopes of an entire continent. IF Uruguay add to their brace of monochrome world titles, they will rid themselves of the burden of nostalgia forever. Such boundless possibilities, limitless horizons.

For those going home in the coming days, the punctuation to the story will be resounding. Full stop. And what will replace the ‘ifs’ will be the wistful sighs of the regretful. The singular word ‘only‘ will be the tormenting addition to that fantastical ‘if’ that weeds its way out of the wreckage of broken dreams and curtailed hopes. ‘If only‘: it’s depressing in its finality, tinged with regret and squandered opportunity; the natural terrain of the disgruntled, battle-hardened fan of a club side. The cycle of weekly disappointments and inevitable domination by a privileged few will sadly but irrevocably worm its way back into our lives. Club football feeds on misery interspersed with fleeting moments of joy. The World Cup however, is unique because of its capacity to unite a nation behind a common cause for better or for worse and it is this romance of ideals that makes its fleeting, transitory nature so alluring. For a moment in time, we are as one.

The stories we will be party to at this year’s World Cup are in the grasp of our imaginations at this very moment in time; hovering on the precipice of our dreams. This time tomorrow, Greece’s World Cup fate will be sealed. As they take to the stage to dance the dance of the desperate with Maradona’s pirouetting maestros, I, like so many of my fellow Greeks will be living on the outer reaches of reality; a million parallel possibilities shuttling through our minds. The club fan in me knows we will be leaving South Africa on Wednesday. With heads held high but nevertheless leaving. The emotionally turbulent Greek in me, brought up on the myths of the elders, tells me otherwise.

If. If. Always the magic of If….

Monday 21st June:

Group G: Portugal 7 – North Korea 0

Group H: Switzerland 0 – Chile 1

Spain 2 – Honduras 0

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