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.

Advertisements

Carnival time?

Yes, surely, in an ‘everything’s relative’ kindofaway. England’s qualification for the Brazil finals will justifiably set one or two congas swaying – and why not? Hodgson’s team (if that’s what it is?) certainly succeeded (if that’s what it was?) by saving up or inventing their best two performances of the group stages for the consequently notably un-jangling end . As though all along they just maybes had a better sense of theatre than we did. Well good on ’em.

Over a genuinely entertaining and sometimes spicily competitive 90 minutes, a full England side did effectively on this occasion rise to the challenge presented by a thoroughly committed Polish group and their likeably raucous supporters. The atmosphere was palpably that of a proper game of footie, largely, it has to be said, because of the volume of – I think we’re talking nearer 25,000 than the 18,000 generally quoted pre-match – and the hearty defiance emanating from (if my translating skills serve me well) Lech Walesa’s Red and White Army. There was that pulse here; the thing that sets us aflutter. And god it was good to have that back.

In the first half in particular, this was an old-style ding-dong; a spectacle and a frightening test for the cardiac health of the management teams. Ludicrously open – with Cahill and Jagielka apparently only communicating via carrier pigeon – and with Townsend or a Lewandowski or two quick to exploit retreating space. To everyone’s credit – players, managers and fans in the ground – this had knock-out excitement and the feel of a knock-out match. (Which it wasn’t, remember, for the Polish contingent.)

The now local or visiting Poles brought into the thing a charge whose only negative was the predictable but clearly unnecessary whistling of the home team’s national anthem. Beyond that, they made a magnificent contribution to the evening’s sport. Including, perhaps, raising the tempo as well as the atmosphere of the game to a level that may have suited the England players: in particular the thought strikes that given the sense that the only viable mode of operation was via high octane engagement, the traditional retreat into hesitancy and plodding predictability was denied to the fellahs in white. A lovely thought that; who knows, or could know how much the nature of the game was determined by tactical preparation… as opposed to beery Central European breath?

Afterwards a dramatically shorn, former trawler skipper name of Keano again belied his national stereotype for waxing lyrical by soberly deadpanning stuff about ‘big players in big matches’ – meaning Gerrard and Rooney. And he was largely right. Those two will gather most of the plaudits for a performance that generally kept the English Disease – of coming over all donkacious and crap when the pressure’s on – at Kenny Dalglish-style (i.e. palming the bear-like defender) arm’s length. In interview, the England skipper may be as dull as the brilliant Scot but last night his relentlessly omnipresent force probably was the difference between the sides. Whilst Rooney’s influence gathered slowly, Gerrard was simply there – everywhere – from first to last. Without being exemplary or truly inspired he more than anyone delivered the victory.

Pre kick-off, a disproportionate lump of our time/airtime had been snaffled up by a certain WBA fan casting around blindly for meaningful/topical subject matter and alighting on the subject of Hodgson’s alleged bravery. Apparently the Brainy But Dour one (twice) threw off the shackles in choosing Townsend. I don’t quite see it that way, not buying (myself) the notion of significant cultural change in the soul of the England Manager implied by the esteemed Mr Chiles’ line of thought. Ar Andros clearly has the potential to be that boldest of choices but softest of targets – The Luxury Player – but the now pretty standard inclusion of six defensively-minded players plus the creaking port-cullis that is Hart allows for a certain slack in the girlie attackers capacity to protect the castle keep.

For those who haven’t got it, the inclusion of two holding midfield players as the hardcore lance-merchants in the central-but-deepish areas of the pitch enables or licenses dafter, more frivolous stuff up the pitch. Like Townsend gambolling or Rooney flashing and flicking; Sturridge loping and loosing that shimmy-stepover; the riskier, bamboozle-heavy and ideally more penetrative offensive stuff. Lampard and then Carrick, therefore, made Townsend possible agin Montenegro and Poland. It was relatively pragmatic decision-making, seen in the whole – a whole where Wellbeck’s lack of goal-threat but tremendous willingness and Rooney’s ability to chase were acutely factored in to Hodgson’s careful pattern. Roy hasn’t, in my view, converted.

And I don’t fully accept that the fact of the qualification following two goodish performances vindicates Hodgson. Whilst this may be the start of something, it may also be another in the series of perceived new dawns which have directly contributed to English complacency around the game. We remain – as surely evidenced by the bulk of this qualifying campaign and certainly by the tournaments that have preceded it – a fascinating but dreadful example of the proud fool, unable and unwilling to actually adopt patently more skilled and successful and downright necessary strategies from elsewhere. Because we never quite accept we have to learn that (foreign) stuff. Because (I suspect – hilariously) we still think there’s something worryingly unmanly about being able to twinkle or caress, or just be comfortable in possession of the ball.

But that’s again the Wider Issue. One which can only be addressed over years and following the radical overhaul of the coaching system. Being undeniably pessimistic about this particular matter, I intend to simply skirt past this one as though it fails to intrude with any relevance. (But man it does… and it is relevant… bigger, for me than the World Cup. I just don’t want to depress either myself or you by going there again this morning. Let’s get back to last night.)

For now we can enjoy – and I do mean that – the sense that our lot not only turned up but played. Played a 65/35 part, I reckon, in a bloody good game of football. And showed some promise – through Townsend’s directness and will to engage and Rooney’s returning quality and Baines’ brightness and busy-ness. Through a much-needed display of convincing collective spirit. They’ll need all that in Brazil.

I’ve now seen all manner of cobblers and conjecture over the possibles and the ‘realistic targets’ for England in South America next year.  The Telegraph even had a ‘Can We Win the World Cup?’ thing going on!?!  Jaysus!! 

I return to my earlier point about radical and meaningful reform of coaching nationwide and throughout the age-groups being substantially more vital than a decent showing by our First XI in Brazil.  Even if Rooney and co had an inspired outing there.  Yes, there is some hope that the younger guys in the squad might yet thrive, despite conditions and the likely spookily alien walk-dart character of the games.  It is also true I think that the general standard of play is relatively ordinary at tournament level – sometimes even through to the defining stages. 

So there is some hope – there is some real hope that an energised, positive England side may perhaps over-achieve in the manner of an England rugby team of recent vintage, rather than bomb out amid the usual ignominy.  If this sounds a weary sort of optimisim then maybe… that’s what it is.  I hope the attacking players in particular fizz with confidence and belief; I just don’t see Hodgson facilitating that because I fear he lacks generosity, dynamism, inspiration – deep awareness even.   These things the English game itself clearly lacks.

We’re left with issues we cannot and should not duck.  Yes England had a real good night last night.  But the football matrix here is still a shocking and pretty depressing mess.