And yet I moan.

Previously, on

I got shredded for using the language of a fan and saying stuff like Scotland are crap. (When actually of course this is offensive to some).

Folks mistook me for a) an out-and-out England supporter and b) someone who has that English Exceptionalist arrogance going on, when I spend a good deal of my waking hours cringing with embarrassment at the state of our (English) delusions. This Three Lions squad has players… but how good is it, really? *Scrunched-up face and/or WTF face emoji*.

Also, I eviscerated Southgate for his essential conservatism but then agreed that ‘we probably don’t deserve him’, in the sense that his brilliance around culture, social awareness, responsibility, visibility and message – and maybe even coaching theory(?) – is so laudable and obvious that it feels like maybe the universe should somehow reward the fella. And yet I moan.

England beat Germany. I get that many will like the sound of that: I do a little, myself. 2 – 0. And it is commonly believed that there is a pathway to Bigger Things, opening up. This may be true. Let me throw some ideas at this; at the notions around that prospect and this win.

Here’s a quote from the man himself, after the game:

“We talked about bringing enjoyment to the nation and afternoon’s like that are what it’s all about. The players were absolutely immense right through the team… It was a tremendous performance”.

I think this is both understandable, given the euphoria but also genuinely weird. And plainly delusional.

Just how much did Southgate’s team speak to you, sagacious reader, of ‘bringing enjoyment?’ Arguably 7 (seven) defensively-minded players. No Foden or Grealish or Mount – all of whom bring a surely richer, higher, pacier, edgier edge-of-the-seat factor than some of those who actually got picked. The whole utterly designed for a kind of ‘patient’ pragmatism – for which read ‘nicking a goal and holding out’. Like the away side. At Wembley. Against a genuinely (genuinely) average German team.

So. Enjoyment? And immensity? Could possibly argue Stones and maybe Walker had something powerfully resolute about them. (Maguire, for me, played like a pussy – sorry, fans-speak again – for much of the game; seeking petty fouls and remonstrating with the referee like some petulant, highly-strung academy starlet. He also should have scored with a simple, committed header, had he not had one eye on an incoming challenge). Before the two goals the second half performance smacked more of passive inconsistency than roaring patriotism. The first had started reasonably but then been essentially mixed, with Germany looking better on the ball.

But let’s get back to the team. Don’t take issue with the formation, with three centre-backs, particularly, nor the personnel. Walker’s pace, Stones’ comfort on the ball and reading of the game, together with Maguire’s typical composure and ability to thread a pass made complete sense. The theoretical wing-backs – Trippier and Shaw – were similarly hardly controversial selections.

However. factor in the raging certainty – given Southgate’s propensity in this direction – that these ‘flying wingbacks’ would be a whole lot more fixed, and deep, than flying and then add Rice and Phillips in as well and there is a strong argument that Ar Gareth is not, in fact, that set on enjoyment. Or if he is, he just means winning – winning being the same as enjoyment. (Call me a grass-chewing, horizon-fixing hippy but I question that).

Here are a couple of hunches. Saka was un-droppable after the previous performance: the coaching team might not have picked him but he gave them no choice. I don’t personally see why this precluded the inclusion of Foden or Grealish or both but Southgate was looking to ‘shore things up’, not open up Germany and the game in a way that might have been, yaknow, enjoyable. Grealish is not Glen Hoddle but his career for England may be similarly conflated with the idea that skill is a luxury: that it may not, percentage-wise, work out. Ditto pace: Saka, after an encouraging start, was ineffectual and therefore placed himself at number one in the queue for substitution.

I have no argument with the removal of Saka – the game, after his briefly twinkling start had passed him by – but smiled another wry smile when the incoming Grealish was again stationed wide left. Of course he can or might affect the game out there but does it not feel truer to say that Southgate lacks the courage to stick him into the Real Playmaker’s Role – ravishingly, excitingly, entertainingly central? Indeed, given the (surely unarguable) comparative failure of England to gel and to flow in the previous games, should the Villa man not be picked from the bloody start?!?

On this broader theme – and apologies if I labour this deconstruction of the association between the concept of enjoyment and, erm, Southgate’s soul – but… Rice and Phillips? Against a mediocre German side? At Wembley? When maybe Ingerland haven’t actually offered anything of sustained import, excitement and quality-wise to any tournament since ooh, Bobby Robson(?)

How necessary are Rice and Phillips? Particularly when you have all those other bastions of immensity, behind them? I know this sounds hopelessly unrealistic but when the gaffer’s talking about thrilling the crowds can we not have a conversation about generosity… and energy… and spirit? (To be clear, this conversation need not be entirely about woolly, qualitative stuff – but also efficacy. Methinks England might play better and do better if they think – for want of a better word – ‘creative’).

Funny how you can sound like Morrissey – i.e. ridiculous and miserablist – whilst punting evangelically ‘purist’ views out to the universe. Ho hum. Somebody godda do it.

The point I’m failing to make is something about caution. Southgate is dispiritingly cautious – despite his articulate protestations around national glee. Some of us think this is not just disappointing but tactically unwise. England’s best players, their most threatening players, are Kane, Sterling, Foden, Grealish: maybe Saka might join this list, soonish. These players would enjoy it more, be more successful and generate more overwhelmingly positive vibes in the home stadium if they played attacking football. (Remember that?) England do not remotely play attacking football, in tournaments, under Southgate. They do not even look like they seek it.

Today England beat Germany two nil. A fabulous result. But the performance was again stodgy. Germany should have scored at least twice – Muller and Werner calamitously guilty – and had Goretzka found any groundspeed or intent he might added two more when gallumping clear. (He, like Sterling, opted to throw himself forward in search of a penalty, rather than try to burst the net).

This was a cleansing win but not a triumph of style nor a statement of manifest intent. It was just another mixed effort that lumps England into the next round. Theoretically, it might be said that the draw has ‘opened up’: Southgate’s team, frustratingly, have not.

The best team won.

The best team won, in the smiliest, sassiest, feelgoodiest cup of them all. Perfect – just what you want.

In the oven-warm afterglow of a final that was better than many (but hardly wedding-cake, aesthetically) our reviewing and re-living can be surely generally positive? We’ve enjoyed generally good, sometimes exceptional Group Stages leading to the delicious South American/European Giants confrontations in the last four. Though those semi’s see-sawed between the extraordinary (Haaysus Kreeeeest! Bra-zeeeeell!!) and the arch-typical staccato tease and counter-thrust, the simple rightness of the German victory over a relatively dull Argentina in last night’s showpiece surely artfully plonks the cherry.

But… before looking again at the meaning of all of this, I’ll hand over to the Morrissey lookalike sitting alongside me on the sofa. Because it’s time for my regular dance with miserablism, moralism and emphatic, quiff-swaying pomp.

This has unquestionably been a vibrant, colourful and sometimes brilliant World Cup but not one that allows me to go with the Best Thing Since Sliced Wotsists – not quite. Too many things cut across that notion – key examples include the measured negativism of Holland and Argentina; the low standard of the host country; the continuing drift towards anarchy on the park.

Let’s start with that last one… and get it out the way.

#Brazil2014 confirmed or reaffirmed the sad truth that ‘top’ players are now spending too much of the 90 minutes seeking advantage rather than playing. The Holy Grail is apparently that moment where you find yourself on the edge of the box – or in it – horny with the possibility that you may by some means draw a foul. The actual goal as an objective has receded into the distance, so that only the drawing of contact counts. That grieves me. For so many players to be rejecting the idea that the most life-affirming surge of adrenalin might best be employed to jink gleefully but cleanly past the defender before lashing the ball wholeheartedly into the roof of the net saddens me. However retro or unrealistic it may sound, I just wish they’d dismiss the very existence of the defenders, dart instinctively towards the red zone and smash the fucking thing. Like they used to.

I know how corny it sounds. Robben and Muller aren’t Malcolm MacDonald, eh? The game’s moved on. But I know I ain’t the only one thinking this drift towards games made ungovernable by the cynicism and the cheating of players is BIG and BAD.

Muller and Robben may be word-class footballers but they are both evidently shit sportsmen. They habitually cheat through shameless exaggeration or pure invention of that most contemporary (and cancerous?) of concepts – contact. Forgive me but cheating is unacceptable. Not regrettable, or inconvenient, or inevitable – unacceptable. You don’t have to be weirdly conservative to believe honesty is important in sport or anywhere else. Honesty is important – it’s a central part of that which makes life – and games – work.

I regret but don’t accept either the need to go on the defensive about that value; I’ve written many times about the need for a powerful step back towards that idealism. I still think a Gentlemanly Conduct law could be redrafted to bundle football back into line on this.

In Brazil (as in the Prem/La Liga etc etc) with a zillion witnesses we saw the following on countless occasions; an international player either chugging purposefully or bursting athletically towards the danger area with but a single thought in his head – to throw himself shamelessly as soon as a defender’s leg was stretched. I’ve heard it said that there is some skill in ‘drawing’ fouls this way but c’mon, really? What could be cheaper or more crushingly anti-sport? Players are plainly unable to restrain this appalling instinct so it falls on those who govern the game to sort this. (Surely this is do-able, given the 86 cameras on every significant event in world football?) For me, until it is dealt with there will be no relief from the drift away from full-on, life-affirming sport – from pure footie.

The second major disappointment was the unsurprising but still dispiriting funk that was the host team. Brazil have been ordinary for arguably 20 years – certainly they have rarely showed the expectant world the kind of football for which they are famed – but there was no avoiding the near-cataclysmic sense of well… despair that engulfed the host nation and provided an unwelcome mega-story for the tournament. SEVEN – ONE.

Let’s face it Brazil had a head-start in terms of goodwill, the buzz around this World Cup being manifestly sexier and buzzier than yer average quadrennial gathering. I can’t imagine a neutral anywhere not wanting to see some festival football from these hosts or at the very least downright expectant of an upful shindig given the context of beachy, beautiful, footie-daft people. Brazil (the nation – or nations?) was well up for it; the team, however, was simply inadequate.

I confess to some minor toldyouso-ism following an early-tournament twitter prediction that either #Ned or #Ger might stick 5 past the hosts given their diabolical defending. When it came to pass in such dramatic, nay traumatic style I felt angry rather than vindicated – angry for the arrogance of Luiz and Marcello and the rest, who have plainly been dreaming they are no. 10’s for aeons and have finally been found out for simply not bothering to work at their real jobs.

Scolari is of course culpable in this, for imagining a clubby, fatherly relationship would see his poorly selected, frankly inept crew through. Ultimately an obviously consistently negligent group got what they deserved, if somewhat cruelly. Is it strangely gratifying that our press aren’t the one’s screaming Show Ponies?

The generally more predictable inertia around the other semi (and mercifully, just a few of the other ‘knockout’ matches) was simply tournament football in action. Argentina were unlovely but successful against a Dutch side who did a whole lot more but without that finding, expressing or urgently seeking the freedom to unleash. Van Gaal enhanced his reputation (you do wonder if this was as important to him as the progress of his team, especially given the theatrics around That Goalkeeping Change?) but chose not to liberate up his side. Whilst the majority of coaches would do the same in the circumstances that ole idealist in me wants to believe he would have been better advised to have bawled ‘we’re plainly better than these Argies – go get ‘em, boys!’ before instructing Schneider and co to flood forward into the box. Except I suppose, that if they’d gone in there, they’d only be thinking of that one thing… contact.

So let’s remember the other stuff; the freshness and brilliance of James Rodrigues maybe, the sheer quality of the German’s teamwork, the gusto and the brilliant defiance of the Americans. Mini-glories from Iran and Costa Rica, gallantry and ecstasy, as well as local heartbreak or overly growed-up caution. If we can ever separate the obscenity of all that money spent on our indulgences – and perhaps we are simply wrong to do so? – this was a really good World Cup.