Reading the almost universally stupid write-ups of England v Paraguay on Sunday morning, I wondered whether I’d been at the same game as these journalists. Most depressing was the sheer determination on the part of these men that every single prejudice they’d been peddling about England in the run-up to the tournament would be illustrated by the match. So, Owen was completely out of sorts, Beckham faded out of the game, Sven’s substitutions were hopelessly conservative, he himself sat emotionless on the bench, and so on…
Rather than rehash arguments I’ve already made about why I disagree with this set of views, I’ve been conducting my own little experiment. I’ve been watching the other top sides – as though they were England. I’ve sat through matches featuring Holland, Argentina, Italy, Portugal and Brazil, and I’ve demanded of these sides the same standards as we demand of England.
I’ve been commentating in my head, too. This is something we all do as boys – running with a tennis ball at our feet in the playground, intoning “Dalglish” (usually). But my year at school was unusually lacking in football talent. My teacher stood at the side of the tarmac, as the running ball pulled a comet’s tail of boys around with it. As we trooped off at the end, he smiled beautifully at us and declared “I should thank you boys. I’m going to be laughing all weekend at what I’ve just seen. You all think you’re superstars, but you’re all rubbish.” Thirty years later, John Motson has the same opinion of England; if at any stage they aren’t actually threatening the opposition goal, he thinks it’s us letting the other team into the game, or the opposition causing us trouble, all of which he intones at us in the notes normal men usually reserve for when they’re providing a voiceover for footage of a natural disaster.
So, as I say, I’ve been commentating in my head, applying the Motson standard to our principal rivals in the tournament. How do you think they got on?
Argentina: Completely failed to cope with bright, brave Ivorian attacking. How will they deal with a real attacking force, like Holland or Italy? Hyped playmaker Riquelme can only perform when protected by two other midfielders, and then only in fits and starts; he’s cramping his team’s style and should be dropped – yesterday’s man, and only his close relationship with the coach can explain his continued presence in the side. Argentina’s superstar attackers couldn’t live up to their billing, either; midfielder Saviola was his side’s saviour, after Crespo’s scrappy opener. The entire team faded badly, and the second half was almost entirely Ivorian; but for some neglectful refereeing, the Africans would have come away with a shock victory. As it is, questions have to be asked about Argentina’s selection policy and its reliance on established players who may feel they have nothing left to prove.
The Czech Republic were gifted an early goal, but failed to build on their advantage against the minnows of the United States. McBride was always a worry in attack for the Americans, and if the Czechs are to provide a serious challenge for the cup, they are going to have to look at ways for their midfield to protect their defence. Without bright young prospect Rosicky’s enthusiasm, and shocking US defending, the Czechs would have been exposed for what they are – a flat-track side, short on creativity and adventure. Fading badly in the second half, they were flattered by a 3-0 scoreline, and their supporters will be concerned.
Samuel Kuffour is the toast of Italy as his second-half howler got the Azzuri out of jail. His Ghana team took full advantage as Italy faded badly after the break, and only poor finishing and the late error gave the European team – strongly tipped before the tournament despite recent scandals at the Italian FA – a narrow victory. Italy’s strikers lacked bite and penetration, soon resorting to hopeful shots from long range, whilst only Pirlo from the midfield showed any ambition or creativity. Italy take the points – but this is a game for the underdogs to relish, and they’ll take confidence from this into their next match.
Portugal’s golden generation ran into the sand two years ago, and coach Scolari’s failure to refresh the squad was cruelly exposed as they struggled to beat World Cup outsiders Angola by a solitary early goal. Poor substitutions compounded a weak initial selection as Angola took the initiative in the first half and kept it for the remainder of the game, leaving the Portuguese to rely on Figo’s ancient legs and occasional breaks out of defence. Out of favour Cristiano Ronaldo came closest for the favourites, hitting the bar. Ronaldo should be the hub of this team – but he will be made to wait by Scolari, unless player power can be made to tell.
The fear expressed before the tournament that Holland were a one-man team proved all too true against a brave Serbian attacking effort. But that one man isn’t Ruud Van Nistelrooy, or glory-hunting winger Arjen Robben. The Dutch hero was ageing keeper Van Der Saar, whose series of excellent saves kept Holland in the match and sustained their slim hopes as least as long as the second group game. Serbia expected to come away with nothing from the match, but as their invention and endeavour took a grip on the encounter, they must have rued a string of near misses and will go into their second game with a new confidence. Holland left many excellent players at home – and rookie coach Van Basten’s dizzy confidence, so visible at the ceremony that announced his squad, will have been replaced with regret as his unbalanced, immature squad flailed and fumbled against second-rate opposition. The second round is the best they can hope for.
Brazil, given the plum evening kick off and mediocre Croatian opposition, failed to take advantage as their unmotivated side fell back on deep defence and sheer luck against the invention and courage of their opponents, so ably led by Dario Prso. As Prso poured down the left wing for the nth time, sending the Brazilian defence into panic, he must have wondered why he is left plying his trade in the slums of Glasgow while the likes of Ronaldo, Adriano, Kaka and Robinho, anonymous against him last night, bestride European club football. Only Ronaldinho showed any intent for Brazil, and he is fast becoming their Rooney figure. If anything happens to him, Brazil’s hopes go with him on this performance. Ronaldo, obviously behind the pace, sullen and uninterested, was pulled off far too late in the game, showing yet again this coach’s overreliance on star players living on past glories. Kaka was reduced to hopeful long-range shots, and it was one of these, gifted him by a rare Croatian defensive lapse, that led somewhat fortuitously to the only goal of the game.
This is a very long way round to making a simple point: our commentators and journalists are being ridiculously negative about England and about England’s performance. I grant that British culture values pessimism and the Cassandra approach as signs of intelligence, but frankly they aren’t justified this time – just as none of my reviews above quite capture the essence of the matches in question (the Brazil report isn’t far off, though; I thought they were shocking, apart from Ronaldinho).
Digital viewers of the BBC’s coverage can now opt for an audio setting called something like “Match Sound”, which cuts out the commentary altogether. I’ve a fondness for Alan Green’s atmosphere-multiplying style of coverage, so I won’t be using it – but, if you want to know how England are really getting on, it might be the one you want.