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Post Script

12 Jul

The Definition of Football

noun: a form of football played between two teams of 11 players, in which the ball may be advanced by kicking or by bouncing it off any part of the body but the arms and hands, except in the case of the goalkeepers, who may use their hands to catch, carry, throw, or stop the ball.”

Dictionary.com

OR

“The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.”

Danny Blanchflower


The World Cup Sofa

A huge thank you to everybody who has contributed to and commented on these Dispatches over the last month. What started off as a fanciful set of musings has exceeded all my expectations. I have throughly enjoyed writing them as I hope you have reading them.

Biggest thanks of all goes to The F who has been patient and supportive and a fine editor throughout this process.

If you have any feedback or further comments, feel free to get in touch via e-mail: egonspengler84@hotmail.com

or on facebook groups (Dispatches From a World Cup Sofa) group.php?gid=136784943016455

or Twitter @greg theoharis

‘DISPATCHES FROM A FOOTBALL SOFA’ will return in August.




El Mayor Espectáculo del Mundo

11 Jul

It may not have been pretty. It may not have been the spectacle of extravagance and style that we would have hoped. At times it resembled a slugging contest with some truly thuggish gamesmanship but in the end the team that attempted to play with a fluidity of movement and expression of freedom prevailed. Spain are the World Champions. And despite my belief that neither Spain nor Holland were truly deserving of their place in the Final itself, it cannot be denied that of the two finalists, it was the Spaniards who did the most to warrant the title now bestowed upon them.

Spain have shown a mastery of the ball and an awareness of how to occupy space throughout the tournament, that clearly epitomises a philosophy clearly beholden to the aesthetic beauty that the game at its most beautiful is capable of. There were times when they were perhaps a little too elaborate in their geometrical interplay but teams which have such ideologies centred on the sport’s poetic values (rather than the cold, rational, calculating ideals of the chessboard), are the ones which should always leave with the greatest of accolades. On balance, Spain deserved their victory. Holland, meanwhile, having sacrificed so much of their own sparkling footballing swagger in an attempt to grind out victory from historical failure, will hopefully realise that this has not worked and set about re-connecting with who they are and what they represent and with that evolve into the thrilling force every football fan knows is within them. What Holland did was achieve parity with the teams of the past (and in the process inverted the concept of Total Football as almost every player was booked tonight). Given a choice between the two styles, which Dutchman would honestly choose the 2010 model?

Positive evolution has been a recurring theme during these Dispatches (see rainbow-nation). By assimilating so many disparate cultures into a free-flowing unit chasing one common goal, the Spanish team has managed to overcome years of underachievement and crushing humiliations on the international stage brought about through tensions underlying the Spanish national psyche. The separatist notions of Spain’s regions and the mistrust and bitterness brought about by the oppression of Franco’s fascist dictatorship seemed to have caused divisions which would never be overcome in a nation and team which has always had so much to offer the game beyond its borders. Watching such a proud and defiant symbol of Catalonia in Carlos Puyol embracing the beacon of monarchical patronage, Madrid’s Iker Casillas, was clear evidence that it is not the notion of personal gain that should prosper in the end; it is the acknowledgement that differences are myriad and it is how we choose to utilise those and co-exist that is the most truly beneficial blueprint. Today has brought the factions of Spain together, but with a tragic irony that this day is also the 15th anniversary of the massacre in Srebenica, Bosnia. While the problems that ravaged Yugoslavia were bubbling under the surface for years, maybe even centuries, the fact that such atrocities could take place in such recent times, in a country with now numerous and very distinct borders, simply beggars belief. It is of course a naive notion that football can cure the world of its ills but what it does offer is a glimpse of the possibility of what we can achieve as a human race.

That will be the World Cup’s true lasting legacy. Beyond the calls for technology to be brought into the game and the empty lamenting of Ronaldo’s and Rooney’s no-shows, it is truly fitting that a country so at odds with its own identity, through winning has made the tentative yet cultural-defining steps to try and forge its own unified personality. And it is equally fitting that Spain’s defining national moment has occurred in a country that has walked its own troubled and painstaking journey towards multiculturalism.

The teams that have brought this tournament to life are those teams that have retained their own clear identity yet shown an openness and acceptance of all-comers, whether that be on the football field or from the seated terraces. Germany have benefited greatly from players of varying cultural origins whilst Ghana have played with youthful joy and took a continent on a thrilling journey. We have seen teams do away with the old rigid formations of the past and through such flexibility have prospered. Those that have been resistant to change have faltered and were rightly left behind at such an early stage. (see eyes-wide-shut). If football truly mirrors the times in which we live, is this not an indication of how we, as human beings, should look to approaching the complexities and difficulties that are rife in our world?

As I wrote last night (see all-in-the-game), the notion that football is merely a game played on a field by 22 individuals chasing a ball is so misguided it is barely worth commenting on. Tell that to the people of Madrid, Seville, Barcelona and the Balearics tonight. Tell it to the people of South Africa who have staged the most life-affirming of tournaments that the game has ever seen over the last month. Tell it to the child on the playground kicking a tennis ball dreaming of one day scoring the winning goal for his country in the World Cup Final. Tell it to me, who has spent 31 days dedicated to attempting to articulate my enduring love and passion for a game that continues to excite and inspire me. Or everybody who has been good enough to read one of these Dispatches. Tell us that football means nothing but expect an answer that you will never be able to comprehend.

When the historians set about writing the tale of World Cup 2010, they may be tempted to dwell on the negatives. Perhaps it wasn’t the greatest of World Cups in terms of open, thrilling matches. Perhaps. But it gave us so much to be grateful for. For in the end, when all the matches have been played and the medals have been given out, when the sponsors have left and the pitches are re-laid, there is nothing that can truly match this Greatest Show on Earth.

Thank you South Africa. Hello Brazil.

Sunday 11th July

Final:

Holland 0 – Spain 1 (AET)

All In The Game

10 Jul

Thank you Germany! Thank you Uruguay! As I hoped, match number sixty-three was one of the tournament’s truly entertaining and vibrant games. Of course, without the stakes being quite so high, both teams relaxed and played the kind of football that they are both capable of and have shown at various stages over the course of their seven matches in South Africa. And with it they were able to dispel the growing perception that this World Cup has been a series of drab, Mourinho-inspired tactical deadlocks. Of course, there have been those who have used such methods to progress (see holland) and I have been as guilty as anybody else of bemoaning this kind of effective pragmatism but having done so, I have neglected one of the other recurring themes of these Dispatches: the capacity of the World Cup to produce moments that will become embedded in one’s psyche, those golden moments that unfold a sprawling grand narrative which captivates us throughout its duration. (see worldcupdreams)

As the tournament moves towards its climactic endgame and we begin to cast the events of the last month to the realms of memory, I have started to try and decipher what this World Cup has meant to me personally. These Dispatches merely began as a whimsical flight of fancy borne out of my resentment of having to miss my first ever World Cup matches due to finally having to face up to my own responsibilities as an adult. These were meant to be written every few days in order to articulate my thoughts about the main issues and talking points with friends, who, due to the ever advancing march of maturity, do not live and work in the same vicinities as me anymore. Some have moved to Australia, others have children and more still spend most of their days working in front of  a computer screen. The days of sharing pints down the student union bar or popping round the corner to someone’s living room to catch a match are gone. What has emerged is a world in which we are all inter-connected through various strands of social media and are paradoxically both detached and brought closer because of it. What remains constant is the power of the written word to reach others, no matter what the distance. Old friendships have been rekindled through this, but also as the days have gone by and more and more people have begun to read these Dispatches, it is clear that I am forging links and connecting with people who on June 11th seemed unimaginable and so very far away. I am communicating with Ghanaians, New Zealanders, traditionalists and rebels and my erstwhile students in the classroom have revived my fascination with the enlightening qualities of education (see edunation). I have consistently tried to articulate an alternative standpoint and view to what we were all watching on the field. Agreeing with me or not is besides the point. Thinking is.

So, how do I remember this World Cup? I will remember this World Cup from my living room. And however solitary that may sound, the very opposite is true. I have shared this with friends and family. Via texts and phone calls. E-mails and classroom banter. I have shared it with anyone kind or interested enough to read these Dispatches. And I have shared it with everybody else who has been infuriated, inspired, appalled and enthralled by these sixty-three contests, played in stadia which many of us will never visit, by individuals who many of us will never meet.

What do we take away with us then? The photo memories of a handball and a prostrate, heartbroken, young Ghanaian. We take away the blossoming of a German team before our watching eyes. The achievements of a team with a population of three million re-kindling former feats of glory. Aging maestros creaking at the seams being swept away like cobwebs dangling in the breeze. French rebellions. Japanese hairstyles. A touchline legend daring us to fall in love with him, yet again. A first Greek victory and a sobbing North Korean. Ruined reputations and the realisation that the game cannot continue in its present form if we do not open our collective eyes to the advancement of technology. The triumph of the team ethic. The bewitching Spanish quality of the ability to possess and master the ball. Goalscorers of the finest calibre. Swerving Jabulanis. We take away vuvuzelas and Africa. Always Africa.

The game is the game it is for a reason. It allows us to hope and if anything has come out of these Dispatches, it is the belief that no matter how negative a particular match might be, however rashly a tackle may be executed, however let down we are by our perceived heroes, we keep coming back for more. Not because we are gullible fools but because with every new match, with every kick of the ball, there is always the hope that we will be party to something truly magical. Something we can all share and debate and cherish as the years go by. Diego Forlan’s wonderful bouncing goal was testament to this tonight. As was the exquisite irony of seeing his free-kick hit the bar with the final kick of the game thus extinguishing Uruguay’s hopes of sending the game into extra time. For a brief second we all thought of Ghana and in some small measure, a piece of poetic justice was carried out tonight. If we hope, the game will always be the game.

I have come across people throughout the years who are so swift in their dismissal of football ‘being just a game’. How easy an assumption that is to make. I always want to laugh out loud when I hear such bombast. My own hope is that these Dispatches have proved that football is so much more than that. From geo-politics (see continental-shifts) to fascism (see individuals-united), from national dances (see sambas-and-tangos) to bureaucratic red tape (see numbers-game), football shows that, although it may not be ‘more important than life’, it certainly reflects and mirrors it.

Whether it’s your first Final or your tenth (for the record it will be my seventh), the result in the end doesn’t really matter. It’s the sharing of a moment that we’ve all journeyed towards in these past thirty days that does. Wherever you are, enjoy it. With one more match, comes one more Dispatch. I’ll see you on the other side.

Saturday July 10th

Third Place Playoff:

Uruguay 2 – Germany 3

Impressions of Africa

9 Jul

The news emerged today that, health permitting, Nelson Mandela will be in attendance at the Final at Soccer City on Sunday and if this is the case, he will be asked to present the trophy to the new champions. I sincerely hope this is what comes to pass. This is how it should be. Because from the moment the reports broke of the tragic and premature death of his great grand-daughter on the eve of the tournament, some of the soul was ripped out of this greatest of parties. As I wrote all those weeks ago, this was to be the crowning glory of the great man’s ‘long walk to freedom’ and to have been so sadly denied the opportunity to bask in the sunshine of his nation’s open embracing of the rest of the world is perhaps one of the most callous hands fate could have dealt. (see va-va-vuvuzela)

Who knows how things would have turned out if he had been there cheering on Bafana Bafana’s willing but ultimately average players? Would his very presence have provided them with the spur to convert the chances they had in that opening game against Mexico? Would it have provided them with a springboard to take the entire nation on an emotional and far-reaching adventure which would have spread elsewhere in the tournament and transformed it into the romantic blend of sub-narratives we all so desperately crave from this wonderful sport? Unfortunately, we will never know but what is clear is that this first African World Cup has broadened the horizons and re-drawn the cultural landscapes for all who have followed it beyond the cut and thrust of events on the pitches of South Africa.

The broadcasters came in for some initial criticism in this blog for pandering to pre-conceived notions of national stereotyping; the village with no electricity, the patronising of poverty-stricken South Africans and the tendency to pigeonhole African sides with labels such as ‘tactically naive’ and ‘physically imposing’. However, as the tournament has progressed, the media and especially the BBC, has sought to articulate the problems, both social and historical, with a sensitivity and genuine insight that can only be wholeheartedly commended. I have been unquestionably moved by Clarence Seedorf’s visit to Robben Island (see 8799052.stm) and enlightened by Mark Lawrenson’s report on how Anfield’s Kop was named after a brutal battle of the Boer War, encompasing such historical figures such as Churchill and Ghandi (see 8775410.stm). However, what resonated the most with me was the BBC’s re-telling of the horrifying events in Cape Town in 1966.

The black inhabitants of the city’s District 6 were forcibly evicted to make way for whites but the area was regrettably neglected over a period of years and a once flourishing and vibrant place was eventually razed to the ground. Of course this is just one aspect of such a wicked notion as apartheid but it is District 6 that provides the first introduction to poetry from other cultures for many of our country’s schoolchildren. The poet Tatamkhulu Afrikaa wrote the poem “Nothing’s Changed’ as a eulogy for his nation’s tragic past and a warning shot to its uncertain future, as Mandela was making those tentative steps towards parity in 1990. It can be difficult for teenage boys to show empathy at the best of times, but what the BBC did by showing actual survivors of racial segregation has offered us teachers the chance to illustrate how a poet’s use of rhythm and metaphor is rooted in the sinews and fibre of the living person rather than merely being words on a page. For that I am grateful and hopeful.

But Afrikaa’s overt message was to express the fear that although the country was rejoicing in its new dawn, the problems depressingly still remained. The years of neglect and mistrust could not be waved away with the mere release of a political prisoner. And twenty years on from that momentous event we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that the scars of apartheid are any closer to being healed. It was Mandela’s act of political and diplomatic genius, when he doffed a Springbok cap and jersey in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, that saw black South Africans feeling able to celebrate in the accomplishments of a sport that was viewed as being the mostly exclusive preserve of the oppressor. I don’t purport to know many South Africans, but the few white ones I do know, have shown very little interest and enthusiasm for their black compatriots’ exploits at this World Cup. Mandela’s presentation of the World Cup on Sunday to a Dutch team, so inextricably linked to the Afrikaners may prove an ironic watershed which will see white South Africans finally embrace a game which is adored by the world at large. Whether that translates into an enduring following and support for Bafana Bafana remains to be seen.

What is clear though, is that South Africa is more than just a place of racial tension and poverty. It is breathtakingly beautiful, rich in culture and has a footballing fanbase which is equally as passionate and colourful as that of England, Brazil or Holland. And it is perhaps, this World Cup’s lasting legacy, that it will more than likely be more fondly remembered for its supporters rather than its great acts of footballing excellence on the pitch. This has truly been a fans’ World Cup and it is probably best encapsulated in the blasts of the vuvuzela. At this late stage, I can finally say that I have grown to love it and I will miss it. The problems may not be washed away after a month of celebration, but if Nelson Mandela is seen trumpeting on that famous instrument on Sunday night,  perhaps then the soul of the tournament that was so cruelly taken at the outset can now be, at least partially, restored.

Diary of a Nobody

8 Jul

They expect too much of me. They always do. The people. The mass. The mob. So many eyes diverted away from my existence, I live my life through a transparent veneer like a ghost floating across misty plains. I call to them all and urge rationality and temperance but my words are shrivelled when thrust up against the bulging veins and spittle of venomous hatred. My life goes unnoticed. I live a solitary existence despite living amongst hundreds, thousands, millions. Alone. I am always alone. Until…

Until my judgement is called into question. And then the wailing banshees and hysterical professing of all-seeing knowledge is unleashed from its Pandora’s Box and I am called to account. Prostrate before the world, my frailties are nakedly apparent. A mere blink of an eyelid heavy with perspiration or ray of glistening light blinding my vision is all it takes for my reputation, my name, my very reason for living to be sullied and pilloried from the highest of rooftops.

Who are these self-appointed judges of a man? Are they so above criticism themselves, that they can offer pontifications and judgments from distant citadels inhabiting banks of glowing screens which frame every second of a man’s movement? Do they live the moment as I do, in a constant state of suspended tension with every sinew stretched and every sense sharpened? I am not as young as I was. My body tires and my breathing gets heavier, more painful with each passing year. But those around me never wilt, never slow, never decay. I am trapped within my own living nightmare; doomed to fail as others prosper.

Nobody calls the Others to account. Those notorious tricksters with their repertoire of deceptions. It is I who is expected to spot the nudge, the pinch, the theatrical clutching of swollen limbs weighing heavy with the placebo of artifice. I watch these Others from my exile in dark, echoing tunnels after their deeds have been extolled and championed by the writers and cameras. I watch them leave watering holes with gaggles of peroxide pin-ups and zoom off in streamlined, black motorcades. I go home to my three teenaged children and my high-school sweetheart. We drive a Renault. On a street with recycling bins and potholes. I pay my taxes, work my job from day to day. And in the evening, I go for a run. The iPod nano, my eldest got me for Christmas with the money we gave her, has eight songs on it which I shuffle on repeat. Five of these are by Dire Straits. My Sunday paper shows the Others on the front and the back. My joints ache.

My intentions have always been honourable. In confrontations, I am always the peacemaker, sorting out the ‘he saids’ from the ‘she saids’. I expect that we all would like everybody to just get along. But the Others are like children, you see and sometimes they need to be admonished, corrected. The young can be so petulant and I’ve always suspected that they don’t really mean it. If they did, why then would they hug and caress each other like scampering lion cubs after the event? And they’re usually very nice to me then, despite the pointing and the prodding that had gone before. Not always though. That’s the time I fear the most. Because if the Others are angry at you, it will more than likely follow that the others behind the Others are probably too. And when that happens, I am forced to hide. But I don’t need to really. After all, nobody ever remembers my face. They aren’t here to see me.

But without me, there would be no order to the anarchy that surrounds us all. I record the passing of minutes and seconds with pinpoint precision. I take notes. Fastidiously. I am immaculate in both my presentation and my demeanour. Though I am invisible, I am always dressed for the occasion with sharpest of black or lurid of yellow. I prefer the black. The yellow is too conspicuous and I would rather lead a quiet life. But sometimes, that is impossible.

Why do I do this? Is it because I seek to gain my revenge on the Others who had inflicted a school-life’s worth of playground humiliations on me as a child? Do I prefer to be a passive voyeur rather actively participate? Am I a dullard? A jobsworth? A pedant? Or am I the eternal diplomat? The politician, the policeman, the patrician? My tools summon all to attention and my word is final.

But with that comes doubt. There are people who doubt me and ridicule me and mock me. But it is always them that come running and screaming to me when they seek fairness. But more often than not, they forget that I was ever there in the first place. And more often than not I leave the arena alone; after the cheering, baying crowds have dispersed into nothingness. I go home and look in the mirror and I know that I have to live with the decisions I have made alone. Without comrades and without supporters.

I am the loneliest man in the world.

Howard Webb has been selected as the World Cup Final referee.


Unpredictable Predictability

7 Jul

I’d imagine that fish restaurants from Hamburg to Leipzig will be sharpening their knives tonight in anticipation of a flurry of orders for the ‘kalamari special’ over the next few days. Unfortunately, schools of innocent squid will probably suffer terminal fates because of the uncanny ability of one of their distant cousins to correctly predict the result of all the matches involving Germany at this World Cup. Yet again, Paul the Octopus gravitated towards the flag of the victors in his tank at the Oberhausen Sea Life Aquarium and this time his prediction was Spain.

Of course, we can’t make too much of random sequences of cephalopodic undulation but to attach meaning to such random acts is part of the human need to make sense of the ultimately chaotic world we live in. Despite all the statistics, data and analysis at our disposal, the bizarre, unforeseeable and coincidental occur on a nigh-on daily basis; from lottery numbers producing instant millionaires to the tragic loss of a life before its time. Seeking to order chaos, in the end, is such a futile pursuit.

I had stated so early on in these blogs that the winner of World Cup 2010 would be from the South American continent. (see south-america) The basis for this prediction was rooted in a variety of reasons:

(a) the knowledge that European teams do not tend to prosper beyond the frontiers of their home continent and had never produced a winner,

(b) the assumption that South American teams would acclimatise better to the high altitudes of the host nation,

(c) the evidence being played out at that moment that saw such assurance and confidence on display from the likes of Brazil, Argentina, et al.

One by one the South Americans fell. Some were the architects of their own destruction (Brazil), others outplayed by stronger opponents (Chile, Argentina) whilst others were left to rue missed opportunities and bad luck (Uruguay, Paraguay). In the space of a matter of days, the Europeans managed to re-assert themselves on the international stage, produce three of the final four and make the lionising of the Latins by many of us seem, in the final analysis, rather ridiculous.

Tonight’s semi-final proved a step too far for the young German side. They were beaten by opponents who have a greater experience this level and can administer with such annihilating ease a ‘death of a thousand passes’. Spain had never got past a World Cup Final. Germany were in their tenth semi-final and had gone on to win three World Cups. The winners of the tournament were usually to be found in that exclusive club of seven nations who had previously emerged triumphant. Germany had scored the most goals at this tournament and for many were one of the most exciting teams to watch. Spain had become the masters of the 1-0 victory; playing intricately but without clinically frequent execution. With their victory, Spain have made sure that there will be a new country joining that illustrious band of winners on Sunday. Europe has won.

However, with that certainty I cannot help but feel sadly underwhelmed by it all. The Final is not the Final I had anticipated and if I’m being honest, wanted. In a World Cup that in many respects has failed to live up to the expectations many of us had hoped it would, it is perhaps fitting that we are to get a Final that will leave people thinking wistfully back to what has transpired and that melancholic ‘what if’ (see ifs-and-buts). This World Cup will not be remembered for its classic encounters. There has been no thrilling comeback. The host nation left its own party too early thus failing to carry the wave of its people on a magical journey. Those potential moments of exquisite poetry have been denied us, whether that has been via the raising of a hand or an inability of a coach to apply tactical nous to his unquestionable ability to enthrall and magnetise (see clones). The underdog, in the shape of Uruguay, Ghana or even New Zealand has failed to prevail with any true significance.

What we have been left with is a Dutch team that has reached its third final, without totally shining (see holland) and a Spanish team that plays to its strengths by using possession as its suffocating weapon. The result of this is that we are headed towards a potentially stagnant match in which both these teams negate the other, with ironically, each other’s predictability. As I have said before, both finalists are not beholden to any kind of fantastical notion of purity if the end justifies the means. The hunger for victory, in many respects, outweighs this.

However, waiting four years for this, collecting the stickers, replaying the old videos, putting up the wallchart and everything else that goes with a World Cup just doesn’t feel like it is worth the effort tonight. (see worldcupdreams). The very reason I started this blog was because of my enduring love affair with this tournament. The pragmatists may have got the result they set out for all those days ago. They may have wracked up the wins in the build-up. They may even have played the most technically sound football. But, I know I won’t remember this World Cup for either Spain or Holland. So on Sunday, I will be watching the Final with a sense of what might have been.

I would have dearly loved to have seen a Germany vs Uruguay final. Europe vs South America. Pioneers vs underdogs. Traditional winners vs forgotten trailblazers. The third-place playoff will hopefully see the shackles lifted and perhaps these two nations can give us the match we have all been waiting for. I dare them. Sunday can wait. As can my ‘kalimari special’.

Wednesday 7th July

Semi-final:

Germany 0 – Spain 1

 

Identity Crisis

6 Jul

There is something about this Holland team that is slightly amiss. How can a team that has breezed through its group, overcome the imposing hurdle of Brazil and by and large looked comfortable in its semi-final victory against Uruguay, leave so many of us with a hollow feeling in the pit of our stomachs?

Nobody can question that the Dutch don’t deserve their place in Sunday’s final but every bit of commentary and analysis relating to them throughout this tournament has highlighted the fact that this team has played a style of football which is a far cry away from the legendary Dutch teams of the past. Clive Tyldesley was almost imploring them to spread to spread their wings and play their traditional free-flowing football once Giovanni Van Bronckhorst thundered in that opening goal from such an improbable distance. Tyldesley couldn’t help but conjure up the memories of Arie Haan and Johnny Rep who scored with similarly outrageous audacity in World Cups of the 70s. The post-match reaction from the ITV punditry panel was more wistful sigh than salutary high.

How will the Dutch feel if this pragmatic ideology culminates in the country’s greatest ever sporting achievement? I would imagine in the initial flushes of joy, they wouldn’t pay it too much thought. However, all such feelings are fleeting. If we were to wake up next Monday knowing that the Dutch are the World Champions, we’d know that although they’d won the trophy without putting a foot wrong, they would have won it at the cost of who they define themselves as, as a footballing nation. And many people in the Netherlands would be inclined to agree when it has been increasingly apparent that the Germans have been playing more like the Dutch are supposed to whereas the Dutch have done the opposite.

Whether we like it or not we define ourselves by our national identity. There are certain instinctive elements that are embedded within us which determine how we might act and react in a given situation. Of course, this may have a lot to do with upbringing, social class and natural inclinations but it is also true that the tribe you belong to shapes you greatly. Hence, when Greece conceded so early against South Korea in their opening match, I was quick to point out that their heads would droop and that they would begin to bicker. And lo and behold, they did. As the French went on strike, the Italians departed with all the theatrical melodrama of the finest Puccini opera. We cannot deny who we are, for better or for worse.

What has become clear is that there have been two tectonic shifts in this World Cup for both Holland and Germany. One involves regression and the other involves evolution. The fabled Dutch teams of yore, however gifted, expressive and entertaining they may have been, have (with the exception of Euro ’88) ultimately failed. We may have eulogised them too much because in the end, the history books omit the names of Cruyff and Bergkamp when the winners are recorded. Bert van Marwijk, the Dutch coach has understood this and has implemented a strict tactical soundness while keeping the squad close. How very un-Dutch. By doing this, however, he has negated the very characteristics that make them who they are. The Dutch nation is famed for its liberal and relaxed attitudes towards life. This outlook translates itself onto the football pitch. Remember, the Dutch teams of the 70s? Shirts untucked. Socks rolled down. Flowing hair. Sideburns. And they wore that iconic orange shirt. Coolness personified. The 2010 model is still Holland. They are as technically assured. They win. But they have consistently failed to fire the imagination and light up the soul and for those reasons, on a personal note, I haven’t been suitably inspired to write about them throughout this tournament. By taking away that very elixir which defines who they are as a team, as a nation, the Dutch have lost part of themselves. One could make a similar argument for Brazil, but it can safely be assumed that the Brazil of 2014 will be more in synch with their own cultural identity than the imposters of 2010 were. A Dutch victory however, may signal the death knell for a certain kind of football associated with this nation.

The case for Germany is a little more emblematic of a team that is at ease with its own sporting achievements. The Germans have retained their characteristic qualities of determination and organisation but have added both flair and fluidity to their play. In other words, they have not sought to deny who they are but they have adapted to the changing attitudes and methodologies around them. (see rainbow-nation)

Both outlooks have so far proven to be successful but if a poll was taken tonight as to which team has played the most entertaining football at this tournament, then I would assume the Germans would come out on top. Of course, the Dutch need not make any apologies for their progress in South Africa. Their playing style has clearly worked. Nevertheless, watching them has been like seeing a much anticipated film at the cinema, only to leave once the credits roll with a feeling of vague disappointment. The mass is there but there’s something not quite right about the detail.

The final gives them the chance to remind us all who they really are. But don’t hold your breath…

Tuesday 6th July

Semi Final:

Uruguay 2 – Holland 3

Cheating the System

5 Jul

The Corinthian football club of the nineteenth century, so the story goes, was so staunch in its commitment to the spirit of amateur fair play, that when an own goal was scored by one of their opponents, they would immediately reciprocate the gesture by scoring one of their own. Penalties for them were anathema, missing them deliberately. And they refused to join the Football League or compete in the FA Cup for years because their founding rules stated that players were forbidden to “compete for any challenge cup or prizes of any description.” My, how the times have a-changed…

The fallout from Luis Suarez’s self-styled ‘Hand of God II’, which so cruelly denied Ghana a place in this year’s semi-final, has resulted in much gnashing and wailing in the world’s media and has rightfully or not tainted the perpetrator with the label of ‘cheat’ for the remainder of his career. However, in many respects, it is difficult to truly condemn the rationale behind Suarez’ instinctive reaction. If he had not put his arms in the air, the net would surely have bulged and the resulting Ghanaian celebrations would have provided this World Cup with one of its truly heart-lifting and memorable moments. If the hands had not obstructed the ball’s flight, then Uruguay would not have been left with an adequate amount of time with which to draw themselves level for a second time. What Suarez did was sacrifice his own personal glory for the good of the team by giving them a faint glimmer of hope that their World Cup ambitions would remain intact. The horror that befell Asamoah Gyan, however distressing that may have been, could have been avoided if he had kept is nerve (as he so remarkably did in the shoot-out) and dispatched it with his usual aplomb (see childs-play). With that miss, Uruguay remained in the competition and on the balance of play, rightly so. However, distasteful his methods, the ensuing condemnation of Suarez seems to have been slightly overcooked. What would Gerrard have done in such a situation? Or Cannavaro? Or indeed, Gyan? Would the victors be so empathetic to the despair of their opponents?

What is apparent is that there is an expectation that football should somehow position its moral compass above those that we experience in our daily lives. If you have followed this blog in its entirety, you will have perhaps noticed that I believe that although football has the most amazing power to transcend boundaries and cultures, it nevertheless mirrors what we all experience in the day to day. No more, no less. Hence, why such exaltation of the game’s demi-gods has gone so infamously awry in South Africa (see individuals-united).

Can anybody truly say they haven’t broken the rules when they thought they could get away with? People fare-dodge on trains, park on double yellow lines, tell white lies and even claim extravagant expenses on work accounts with almost indiscriminate ease every day. If rules are rules, they are breaking them and if we’re being consistent those very people should also be tarnished with the ‘cheat’ brush. Life is not as morally simple as that; despite what the guardians of the mythological moral highground may tell you. With all its attendant shades of black and white, humanity cannot be defined in such definitive terms.

We all like heroes but we equally all enjoy hissing and spitting at a perceived villain. I can only assume that the public image of Suarez in Montevideo is at an all-time high. So with such apposite opinions, who can truly be held account for the injustice suffered by Ghana last Friday?

All of us, operate and live our lives by sticking and obeying certain laws and rules. If caught bending or breaking these we can all except admonishment and reprimands befitting the ‘crime’ we have been found guilty of committing. If anybody needs to be condemned for their failure to uphold such rules in that fateful game, then it should be the very organisation that enforces how the game is played in the modern era. The referee did nothing wrong per se. He did exactly what FIFA’s rulebook told him to do; he sent off the culprit and awarded a penalty. However, the punishment of a penalty simply does not replicate the certainty of a goal. Therefore, instead of profiting from the situation, Ghana were actually handicapped. This is where FIFA is falling short of its self-appointed role as guardian of fair play.

If the game was fair, the referee in England’s ill-fated match against Germany would have been allowed to change his mind upon seeing the video evidence and start the second-half with the scores level. If the game was fair, Paraguay would have been given another shot at taking their missed penalty against Spain because the Spaniards were encroaching the area; a situation that befell Spain a minute later which led to Xabi Alonso missing a penalty which he had converted seconds before. If the game was fair, the referee in the Brazil vs Ivory Coast match would not have shared a chuckle and a joke with Luis Fabiano after his blatant handball (see sambas-and-tangos) which resulted in a goal. If the game was fair, there’s be no diving. Or waving of imaginary cards. Or pulling of shirts. The game is not fair. But what incontrovertibly is, is the forensic lens of the camera. And if FIFA do not want the game to descend into a litany of perceived injustices and finger-pointing, this World Cup has surely provided the authorities with all the evidence they need to ensure the game continues to flourish.

In an ideal world, the players would take responsibility for their own actions too. How refreshingly audacious would it have been, if the German players had refused to carry on until England were awarded their goal and have the knowledge that they would defeat them regardless of it? Or if Fabiano had admitted to his misdemeanour and had the goal chalked off? Or if Uruguay’s players accepted that the ball crossing the line would have indeed eliminated them from the tournament but safe in the knowledge that they had tried their best? How idyllic an image is that? How Corinthian. How unrealistic…

Suarez’s unsportsmanlike gloating after the match is the truly reprehensible act; not his handball. Here we saw the ugly side of the game. His ungracious remarks (“I made the save of the tournament”) have left a bitter taste and have tainted a Uruguay team that has done so much in the tournament to rid itself of the reputation of purveyors of the game’s ‘dark arts’. Tomorrow, against Holland, they will once again, be cast in the role of pantomime villains. All because of  ‘The Hand of God II’. Now that really isn’t fair.

School Reports

4 Jul

The teacher in me couldn’t resist the opportunity. So without further ado here are Mr Theoharis’ end of term reports for the final four:

Uruguay:

This pupil has exceeded all expectations this year. He has applied himself to his studies with a commitment and discipline which has seen him rise from the middle ranks of the class and thus set himself the achievable target of finishing the term as star performer. Uruguay has shown exceptional flourishes of flamboyance on sporadic occasions and despite having to overcome a mid-term difficult period, when it seemed that everybody else in the class was willing him to fail, he has shown incredible tenacity which has seen him prevail and stands him in good stead for the examinations to follow.

There is a tendency on Uruguay’s part to adopt more crafty methods in his desire to succeed at this level and while I appreciate that this demonstrates a determined and single-minded mentality, I would advise him to temper such methods in future, if he wants to retain the respect and admiration of the rest of the class. Such actions will not be tolerated and should this occur again, I will have no option but to send him to the headmaster’s office for more serious sanctions to be administered.

Nevertheless, Uruguay’s current progress is to be highly commended and I have thoroughly enjoyed witnessing his transformation from a self-conscious and slightly awkward member of the class to the confident and highly gifted individual that now stands before us. I wish him luck in all his future endeavours.  B+

Holland:

This pupil has had the added difficulty of having to live up to the past achievements of his older, more instinctively creative relatives who have graced this school’s corridors in years past. While not outwardly charismatic, Holland has shown that he is able to stick to his tasks and has shown a great aptitude for teamwork which has shown a maturity that should be applauded. He approaches all tasks with a dogged pragmatism and I have at times seen reminders of why he is related to such an illustrious family.

This was particularly evident when he undertook the task of outmaneuvering and defeating the challenge of a rival school which had enjoyed continued success for a number of years. Whilst his rival resorted to playground tactics, Holland maintained his coolness and achieved a result that should buoy him for the remainder of the term. This should unlock some of the natural confidence which I feel he possesses and consequently see him achieve a grade that many had not anticipated at the beginning of the academic year.

I would suggest that although he has progressed impeccably, Holland should not forget the means by which he has achieved his current success. He must remember that he is his own man and not fall into the trap of trying to match those who came before him. By doing this, he can potentially create his own hallowed history that will rank alongside the accomplishments of his family.  A-

Spain:

Spain has been a constant source of frustration to me this term. While he is in possession of a natural gift, he is prone to both procrastination and showing off in front of the other members of the class. He must learn to be more decisive and focused if he believes that his talents are truly worthy of greatness. Many are the students who demonstrate such wonderful potential in their younger years but fail to capitalise on this in their adulthood. I would like to believe that Spain is not one of these and although he has reached heights that have hitherto not been scaled before, there are still elements of his performance that need to be rectified with immediate effect.

However, Spain has at his disposal a skill that far exceeds those of the rest of the class. Whist not truly convincing me as a whole this year, he has managed to cultivate an ability to produce sporadic moments of brilliance. What I implore him to do, is ensure that this should be executed on a more consistent basis.

I fully appreciate that there have been pupils who have tried to obstruct Spain’s instinctive artfulness this year and this has been frustrating at times. Nevertheless, the issue remains that if he does not attain the grade his abilities suggest he should, he will only have himself to blame. A little more focus, a little less dithering, please.  B

Germany:

What a revelation this pupil has been this year! Where once this Germany approached his work with methodical and some might say dour functionality, he has developed into a highly skilled and entertaining worker and consequently has gained the plaudits from not just the staff, but also from his peers.

One might have questioned his maturity at the beginning of the term but as the school year has progressed he has consistently passed all his exams with flying colours. It is evident, however, that Germany is blossoming into a thoroughly capable student and I expect to see him going onto greater success, if not perhaps this year, then in the years to come.

Germany has looked to helping those around him by setting impeccable examples for how students should conduct themselves around the school. Whilst others have let themselves down due to their own indiscipline and laxness, this pupil has stayed focused and driven and has managed to retain and apply the lessons taught him by his teachers. This attitude may cause envy in others and be subject to arrogance on his part but so far, this has not been the case.

Germany must not allow this report to go to his head. Complacency can easily set in and if he loses his focus, he may ultimately go unrewarded. However, from the evidence thus far this is hardly likely to be the case. An exemplary student.  A

Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school – Albert Einstein


A Simple Plan

3 Jul

If you’ve been regularly reading this blog you will recall that I confidently predicted a South American winner of this World Cup and more specifically that victory would take shape in the form of Argentina (see south-america). The events of the last twenty-four hours have dramatically re-shaped such initial bluster with the twin exoduses of the traditional giants of that continent, Brazil and Argentina; both spectacularly caving in during their quarter-finals but in differing circumstances. While Brazil panicked beyond logic and reason against Holland and went about single-handedly wrecking their chances of recovery with rash tackles and petulant tantrums, Argentina’s demise was devastatingly brought about by a team that clinically dismantled the attacking foundations with which Diego Maradona had so admiringly instilled into his players.

I have written extensively about the delicate balancing act that exists between the team ethic and the free expression of the individual (see individuals-united) and have asked the question on numerous occasions as to whether such a chimerical symbiosis is possible. In the Germany squad, over the course of three enlightening weeks, I believe we are seeing the closest thing possible to such a fantastical vision. To put it plainly, they are executing football with beautiful simplicity. And in that simplicity lies the foundation of their ongoing success. They have scored with such wild abandon and conceded so infrequently that the perennial accusations thrown at them, those of being functional and pragmatic, seem as ridiculous as maintaining the belief that the world is not round. It has become evident that the Germans and not the attractive, free-wheeling motions of the Spanish or Argentines, are forging the way for a revolution in how we should all approach the practice of the game at all levels. How can this have come about?

What the German players have thoroughly understood throughout this tournament is that football, when you boil it down to its very basics, is a very easy game to play. Pass, move, tackle, defend, attack, stay in position. Everyone has a job to do and when stuck to, individuals shine. Bastian Schweinsteiger has developed into an orchestrating midfield general par excellence, Miroslav Klose edges closer to surpassing Ronaldo’s all-time goal-scoring record at World Cup Finals, Lukas Podolski contributes both experience and lethal marksmanship whilst Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil are the young players of the tournament. Each and every one of them deserves to make the Team of the Tournament shortlists which will start to appear in the next week or so. But with each game, we are seeing that the entire team is capable of making it into such fantasy polls. With each hurdle they have so assuredly swept aside, they have persistently been dismissed simply because of the frailties of the opposition put in front of them. Australia were old and technically inferior. Sterner tests would come. Enter England. But if the English hadn’t been so comical in their attitude to defending and if luck had smiled upon them perhaps the Germans would have been undone. Argentina would provide them with a more forensic workout, surely. It proved the very opposite. And by so easily smothering one of the most naturally artistic teams in the tournament whilst outplaying them with ease, Germany can now be seen as serious and deserving contenders for the prize.

Germany as a footballing nation seems to do things right. The Bundesliga has the lowest ticket prices and the highest attendances out of the five major European leagues. Fans are provided with free travel passes and season tickets are limited in order to allow the majority rather than a select, monied minority, to follow their clubs. The clubs, and I speak with an outsider’s perspective, do not seem to have the same conflict of interest when it comes to deferring their ambitions to that of the national team. The much-maligned Jabulani ball was introduced into the German league six months before the World Cup began whereas because of sponsorship agreements, the Premier League was prohibited from allowing its member clubs to use it in training, let alone in games themselves. So much for forward-planning.

Speaking of which, the average age of the German squad is twenty-five, bettered only by North Korea (24.8) (see north-korea) and Ghana (24.1) (see childs-play). By comparison, England (28.7), Brazil (28.6), Australia (28.4) and Italy (28.2) had the oldest squads. Far be it from me to take refuge in the starkness of statistics (see numbers-game) but there must be something in the fact that the youngest squads provided and continue to provide us with some of the tournament’s shining moments whilst the oldest laboured and stuttered towards their eventual demise. With this confidence in introducing young players onto the international stage, the German football association (which always includes a selection of former players rather than faceless grey men in blazers), allows itself to produce a national team which is programmed to succeed. However, there is nothing new in that. The German teams of the past have reached the final stages of big tournaments with single-minded regularity. One might even contend that as a consistent force in world football, Germany are on a par with Brazil having reached the same number of World Cup Finals whist also adding European titles to their honours list. Like the nation itself, the German national team has an amazing capacity for regeneration and through its foresight it is best placed to be at the forefront in the years ahead.

Whilst the romantic may have mourned the defeat of Ghana’s brave but ultimately naive team last night or the extinguishing of Diego Maradona’s ultimate act of exquisite redemption, the Germans, having tragically lost their number one goalkeeper, Robert Enke to suicide last November, have their very own quietly sober inspirations for success. Maybe we can all learn from such a wonderfully simple ethos.

Eleven men. Passing, moving, tackling, defending, attacking, staying in position. Winning.

Saturday 3rd July

Quarter-finals:

Argentina 0 – Germany 4

Paraguay 0 – Spain 1

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