June 1st – 21st…….. The opening game between France and Senegal was a strange mixture of realising that the France of 1998 was no longer in shape, and that there was at least one man in the French team who could be playing on the other side. It was the French African Empire playing itself. I imagined the French being spoken on the field wouldn’t have sounded very Sorbonne. I remembered being in Montreal and asking what the French thought of the Québécois. It seemed that there was some kind of mutual hostility. This may have been diminished in the last dozen years as we’ve all been made increasingly aware of each other’s humanity. And after the defeat by the Danes, I had the impression that most french people had turned The World Cup very firmly off. Back home, thankfully, Jean-Marie Le Pen was also to be found in one of the early June tumbrels rattling into the Place De La Concorde. July probably wouldn’t be anything like as embarrassing.
By the time we scrambled a defensive victory against Argentina on the 7th of June, I’d really got into the world cup. If you’ve been to Japan, you’ll have marvelled at the newness of the place, although you’d have probably also realised that the beavering attitude’s always been there. It didn’t just arrive in 1945. Underneath the neon, it’s a very old place, but from this distance, the stadia which have been built and refurbished for this World Cup seem to be almost unrivalled modern facilities. After the Sydney Olympics, which I thought were the best olympics for a very long time, it was difficult to imagine that the impending World Cup in Japan/Korea could live with that kind of standard, but it has done. The obvious thought is that these massive world events are becoming true expressions and celebrations of human togetherness. In this context, it’s infuriating to see the world’s leading economy lagging so far behind the rest of the world’s appreciation of this movement and this particular event, and especially when they’re represented at the festival by a good young energetic team of their own. It’s almost as if the US news corporations want to discredit it until such time as they can buy it, divide it into ‘franchises’, and dominate it. Like ‘how dare they all play a game we hardly know anything about…. and it’s a woman’s game isn’t it’?
But here it is. And all the world has the opportunity of entering. There are over 200 national federations around the world. You don’t need commandos carrying sixty pounds of gear and ammo up a remote mountainside in secret. All you need is a bunch of kids and a round ball. It can be played on the street, on the beach, or anywhere else. So why do it? What d’you get to see? You get to be confirmed in a lot of the good things you thought about the human family. You get to marvel at the glorious differences in the tribes. They all confirm their strengths and weaknesses, their best and worst. Their worst is increasingly liable to observation, and by huge numbers of other observers around the world, because not much can be hidden any more. leastways, the worldwide public domain is perhaps becoming more inclusive. As games are billed, you can begin to pick out cultural elements which can swing games one way or another. Like, will the Brazilian beach boys, replete with hybrid vigour, play with their customary physical genius?
And who on earth can break them down this time? Can the Turks always be trusted to be a short step away from the temperamental violence of the old Empire? How many of the anthems truly reflect their nationalities? What are the anthems saying? Not textually, but emotionally. And how many of the players on a team sing them… and with what kind of conviction? The Americans are still schoolboys. Even Michael Owen seems like Yoda when compared to anyone in the US team with the exceptions of the two goalkeepers, Brad Friedal and Casey Keller. Will the Russians play out the usual tragedy? Will the Eastern humans and their crowds play like bounding children? Are the latins mafiosi or inquisitors, or even conquistadors, the French cynical and temperamental artists, and is the high German cool battering ram physique still second in the war? Are the English forever lost dreamers with an embarrassing media? Are the central Arabs unfulfilled artists who will eventually have to resort to means beyond their worst gods? Are the Africans superb athletes about to overcome their naivety? Could Luis Figo’s facial expressions be any more compelling?
The questions are endless. Are the top players payed too much? What kind of a morality arises from that? Among perceived social changes in the last 50 years we now see hosts of young people deservedly on wages that were only possible for a privileged few in 1960. There are many effects of that on society. Have deaths due to privation in 1800 been replaced by an equivalent ratio of road traffic deaths in 2000? We would very much doubt it. But what incredible changes. That there could now be a certain freedom in the world for nationalities and tribes to be represented by their young people in expressive physical tournaments. We’ve always wished for more freedoms of course, and although some would think that there aren’t many more to be had, there always are. Frontiers are there to push. If we must live in such massive conurbations, then perhaps we can look forward to a day, for instance, when we will be able to direct our own personal taxes from a preferred list of desirables. My 1 and 2 would be free health care and education for all. One of the desires down the list will always be for the physical theatre of sport. You can maybe predict a result, but you won’t be able to foresee the entire story, or what kind of heroics will be involved, and sometimes your entire prediction will be wrong. There will often be an unlikely hero.
Those who say they can’t stand football are really saying that they wouldn’t stoop to admitting an appreciation of physical combat theatre… or else a certain amount of brain death has occurred. But this time the questions and answers are at least interesting. What is for sure is that, in terms of football, the new world is catching the old. There’s a satisfying new equality about many of the efforts. The South Koreans, the United States, the new Turks and the Senegalese are to be congratulated on their presentation and improvement. The general standard in the world has been enhanced. This may not be that obvious to some observers, but a lot of the games have been very well contested. The new 32 team structure of the competition has been more inclusive than it was in the ancient regime, and for once the authority needs to be congratulated for opening the competition to a wider world. This, together with the choice of an entirely new venue has contributed to more world interest in what is now a genuinely global tournament. A tournament as big as the Olympics, but more focused. What this really amounts to is that there are now more means than ever to enjoy the whole of humanity as one gigantic family.
Looking at it from the perspective of a citizen of Senegal, there can be nothing but good comes of their team’s ability to be able to contest on a world stage. The received confidence that this will bring to that nation will quickly increase both it’s social well-being and it’s expectation. Role models are important. The better the ethic on the field, the more likelihood of it being better off the field. There’s even a slim chance that Corporate America may eventually be able to accept that it’s team competed really well in a sport it cannot own. Yet. This would mean that the Americans could eventually become more acceptable to the world. An amazing possibility for the American psyche.
The rot set in for the old European empires and their civil warmongers when the British and German troops played a game of football in the middle of no mans land on christmas day 1916. Corporate USA has to be dragged out of it’s Wall st. trench for a few days, and put on a level playing field with the boys from Brazil. Or in the current economic climate, maybe the boys from Argentina. But wait, not all is that well in the state of Denmark. Although the teams I’ve congratulated above have all acquitted themselves fantastically well, there would seem to have been enough dodgy refereeing decisions to have raised more than an occasional sudden intake of air up my nostrils. There would seem to be a directive, perhaps it’s unconscious, on the part of the authority to reward some of the lesser teams, and particularly the tournament hosts, at crucial moments. That the Italians lost their game with the Koreans was partially self inflicted, particularly when you consider that a striker with the obvious class of Christian Vieri had the opportunity to put the game beyond the Koreans in the last minute but missed an open goal from 4 yards. But that the Spanish should fall to the same opponents with two good goals being disallowed stretches the imagination a bit. I don’t think that I’m suggesting that there’s been any wrong doing, per se, just that certain decisions have seemed momentarily expedient for the officials.
Against this line of reasoning the Germans have had the easiest tournament I’ve ever seen anyone have. To be honest about it, and with all due respect, they haven’t beaten anyone. Theirs has been the luckiest ride known to football man. They’ve been drawn against Saudi Arabia, Paraguay, the USA, Cameroon and the Irish. The Irish were the best team they played, and although Robbie Keane scored in the last minute, they were very lucky to draw that game. In their game against the USA they were clearly the second best team, and apart from the embarrassment against the Saudis, they haven’t fared better in most of their other games.
It’s now June 20th. And running. In their semi final game the Germans are drawn against South Korea! Something has to break. Can officialdom possibly be seen to favour the Koreans again. The Koreans will be the better team, but will they have the experience to overcome their nerve? Or have the Germans still got enough physique to be able to stonewall them from behind the gigantic teutonic myth?
The other semi final promises more. The defunct but still twitching Ottoman Empire plays The Samba Kids. After going through sixty players and five managers during qualification, the Kids chose the squad who were busy earning money in Europe during most of the qualification stage. You’ve gotta larf. Since then they’ve coasted into the semi finals. At the quarter final stage they ran a tired, injured and unfit England out of steam… ‘When I were a lad’ nine tenths of Turkey was in Asia. It seems they’ve had a change of continent since then. Never mind eh, the old identity still lives on. In their last couple of games, the Turks have managed to contain their natural petulant arrogance and tendency to violence. They’ve somehow become more human. Someone must have shown them what was in the mirror. Will they remember when they’re two down with twenty minutes to go against The Kids. In this tournament they’ve done well. There are reasons for this.
Their squad isn’t as generally composed of high profile superstars as are the French, English, Italian and Spanish football superpowers. Like their American, South Korean, and Senegalese counterparts, they’ve not been members of high profile championship teams who’ve played upwards of fifty tense games on the trot. All of these teams have been spirited away from domestic bollocks for weeks beforehand, and spent quality time together. In fitness regimes, and steering clear of injury. By the same token, the star Brazilians have been careful. Rivaldo’s a tart. He goes down if you look at him, and he’s been fined $5000 for feigning injury and getting a man sent off. As one adroit commentator put it, “He probably had the cash on him”. He looks like a giant sun-tanned survivor of Belsen, rumour has it that he’s a bit of a prat, but in the absence of Luis Figo and Zinadine Zidane through injury he’s the best player in the world. And he’s fairly rested, having not long come back from injury. He’s assisted by Ronaldo, a big powerful world class striker who’s as fresh as a daisy, having just now got back from a two year injury. Ronaldo would give any team he played for a goal start. Then there’s the new boy Ronaldinho, who’s not had a really taxing year at Paris St. Germain. No taxing champions league stuff. My own Manchester City bought French international understudy Nicolas Anelka from Paris SG for £9 million. Ronaldinho would have been twice the price. In Shizuoka he made the vaunted English defence look like inexperienced yokels. Then he got himself sent off. It was a bit of a two foot tackle, but he didn’t deserve the red card. It changed the game, leastways it reminded the Brazilians that they were in one, and they promptly started playing like Argentina. Possession in the back field, back passing in the eighty odd degree heat with the seventy odd percent humidity of the Japanese midsummer. Rule Britannia came valiantly unstuck again.
Then there’s the rest of the Brazilian team. Roberto Carlos has had a full season with Real Madrid, but he’s an unusually physically gifted left footed wing back who would walk into any team on earth. Cafu has similar gifts on the right side, and when Denilson plays in midfield, the spine of the team is a formidable mixture of genius and talent. As a post script to this little piece, I must say that had the European superpowers been financially able to take the World Cup as a serious spiritual event, then like the Americans and the Koreans, everyone would have been fit; and the results would have been very different. In the light of this there would seem to be only one thing to suggest. I realize that this goes against the perceived PLC mentalities of domestic club chairmen, but it’s this…. That before a World Cup, there’s a three month moratorium on league play for chosen squads of players, or the leagues are trimmed down to sizes which will not be as intensely stressful for the players to maintain. If league chairmen cannot agree this among themselves then they are relegating the potential global feelgood properties of the World Cup to the status of sideshow, which is a great pity, because I would’ve liked to have seen Luis Figo express the best of his ability on a world Stage, not in a Nike ad. But I’m crap dreaming from my back passage. Money marries money. Collateral is privilege. There are many circumstances in which you wouldn’t want money to rule, and while international football can have a spiritual quality, club football is religion, and as with all religions, market forces will prevail, and temporary gods are expendable.
I quite like our Captain, and I can’t blame him for his wife. I think he’s a decent man and a very committed player, but it was a game too far for him in Shizuoka, and I don’t particularly enjoy seeing that kind of thing. By jumping over the ball at the end of the first half to avoid his feet being clattered any more he inadvertently gave the ball away which led to the first Brazilian goal. Just shortly after half time my emotional investment in the spectre diminished with every stride he tried his best to take. A long time before Ronaldinho scored the winner I knew we were without our usual clock. We couldn’t tick any more. Regardless of the magically flukey winner, should we treat it as a given that Man U are always going to get the best out of our best players… Roy Keane included…. on the Old Trafford corporate treadmill? Sixty games a season? Perhaps emotional and spiritual investments should be reduced, and hedge funds set up elsewhere. Perhaps the world cup is just a glorified amateurish sideshow which can eventually be high-jacked by twenty three monks after all…………….21/6/02
The first semi final between the Germans and the South Koreans saw the Germans finally running into some form. The team that couldn’t automatically qualify for the finals, and who’d lost to England by five goals to one during their campaign, and who couldn’t match Ireland, ended up in the World Cup Final. The result of their semi hung in the balance for about an hour. Every neutral was expecting the Koreans to be running on empty, but willing them on none the less. They were a couple of their best players down, and though the work rate was still fantastic, increasingly they were running into the big black and white wall. Of their players, Jin Chung Choi, Bo, and Ahn stood out. Jung Hwan Ahn has the same sex appeal as Jimmy Page did in 1973. He’ll be feted for an age.
The allegedly arrogant Michael Bollock scored the only goal, on seventy five minutes, which timing was something of a body blow for the Koreans at that stage in the drama. Ballack doesn’t play in the final because of picking up a second yellow card a few minutes before he scored. He’s something of a shadow of his countryman Kaiser Bechenbauer. What they’ll miss from him in the final is someone without much obvious industry, but with a good reading of where to be and when, and the ability to get there. In the second half he was falling well back off his marker, which is how he finally managed to accelerate into the space which saw him score a good goal. They’ll miss his awareness, but someone like Jens Jeremies will come in to make up for it in terms of industry and defence.
I have to say that I really think that the Brazilians will undo the Turks. If that’s not to be the case, then there’s the prospect of this amazing local derby between the master race and their major immigrant population. The ramifications of that are encyclopedic……………. 25/6/02
Mmm, the result turned out as we expected, but the game was worthy of the occasion. The Turks played really well, but Hakan Sukur, their captain and long time hero front man never managed to register a goal in the entire tournament. He had a couple of opportunities in this game, and had he converted, the result might very well have been delayed, but you had the feeling throughout the game that the Brazilians were in some way coasting. The entire team apart from the goalkeeper had a chance to make a goal, but they all chose to go for personal glory. It was a confidence thing. With a hint of childish arrogance, but when you’re that good your stride automatically lengthens a bit. You always felt they had enough in reserve to be profligate. In the end they cut it fine, but I had the feeling that if it had gone into extra time they’d have got really serious.
Nearly half the Turkish team were already on yellow cards, and with a world cup final up for grabs, they were content to play football rather than the more usual skittles. They came out of the game with some credit, and they’re now a force to be reckoned with. In what was to be their final meaningful game the Ottomans showed a modern face. They’ll be ruffling feathers and building shopping malls in Ankara next. The future was easy to see when Kemel Ataturk chose to print newspapers in Western script and tried to align his nation with Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. I can see it now; The Turkish Grand Prix. The Brazilians could have scored about seven. The whole team was at fault and they could have payed for it. Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo and Denilson all squandered a couple of chances each. It was quite an amazing display of selfish nonchalance. And they were brilliant with it. Officially the Brazilians had 11 shots on target to the Turkish 3. I had cause during the business day on Tuesday to receive an email from a German associate. He said, “It is enough for us Germans that we have reached the final”. But he wouldn’t have been speaking for the German goalkeeper….. Oliver Kahn has had a brilliant world cup. He’s living proof of that fact that even if the rest of your team didn’t turn up, so long as the goalkeeper’s great, and lucky, you can go all the way to the final. On Sunday June 30th, he’ll need a double helping of greatness and luck to keep the Brazilians off the top perch. It’ll be down to him and Didi Hamann as to how well the Germans can delay the inevitable. Ramelow, Schneider and Neuville will give some support, but a penalty showdown is likely to be their best chance……26/6/02
I’ll report on the final and other stuff when I’ve got the time in the next couple of weeks. — roy
Copyright 2002 Roy Harper